Donate books to help fund our work. Learn more→

The Rudolf Steiner Archive

a project of Steiner Online Library, a public charity

Karmic Relationships I
GA 235

Lecture VII

8 March 1924, Dornach

In the last lecture I spoke of how the forces of karma take shape, and today I want to lay the foundations for acquiring an understanding of karma through studying examples of individual destinies. Such destinies can only be illustrations, but if we take our start from particular examples we shall begin to perceive how karma works in human life. It works, of course, in as many different ways as there are human beings on the earth, for the configuration of karma is entirely individual. And so whenever we turn our attention to a particular case, it must be regarded merely as an example.

Today I shall bring forward examples I have myself investigated and where the course of karma has become clear to me. It is of course a hazardous undertaking to speak of individual karmic connections, no matter how remote the examples may be, for in referring to karma it has become customary to use expressions of everyday language such as: “This is caused by so-and-so; this or that blow of destiny must be due to such and such a cause, how the man came to deserve it” ... and so forth. But karma is by no means as simple as that, and a great deal of utterly trivial talk goes on, particularly on this subject!

Today we will consider certain examples of the working of karma, remote though they may be from our immediate life. We will embark upon the hazardous undertaking of speaking about the karma of individuals—as far as my investigations make this possible. I am therefore giving you examples which are to be taken as such.

I want to speak, first, of a well-known aestheticist and philosopher, Friedrich Theodor Vischer. I have often alluded to him in lectures, but today I will bring into relief certain characteristic features of his life and personality which can provide the basis for a study of his karma.

Friedrich Theodor Vischer received his education at the time when German idealistic philosophy—particularly Hegelian thought—was in its heyday. Friedrich Theodor Vischer, a young man pursuing his studies among people whose minds were steeped in the Hegelian mode of thinking, adopted it himself. The absorption in transcendental thoughts that is characteristic of Hegel strongly appealed to Vischer. It was clear to him that, as Hegel asserts, thought is the Divine Essence of the universe, and that when we, as human beings, think, when we live in thoughts, we are living in the Divine Substance.

Friedrich Theodor Vischer was steeped in Hegelian philosophy. But he was a person who displayed in a very marked way the traits and characteristics of the folk from which he sprang. He had all the traits of a typical Swabian: he was obstinate, dogmatic, disputatious, exceedingly independent; his manner was abrupt, off-hand. He also had very striking personal peculiarities. To take his outward appearance first, he had beautiful blue eyes and a reddish-brown beard, which in spite of its scrubbiness he wore with a certain aesthetic enthusiasm! I say “aesthetic enthusiasm” because in his writings he minces no words about men who wear no beards, calling them “beardless monkey-faces”! As you see, his language is anything but restrained; all his remarks come out with the abrupt, off-handed assurance of a typical Swabian.

He was a man of medium height, not stout, in fact rather slight in build, but he walked the streets holding his arms as if he were forcing a way for himself with his elbows—which is an exact picture of what he did in a spiritual sense! So much for his outward appearance.

He had a passionately independent nature and would say just what he pleased, without any restraint whatever. It happened one day that he had been slandered by “friends” in the Stuttgart Council—such things are not unusual among friends!—and he was severely reprimanded by the Council. It chanced that on the very same day a little son was born to him—the Robert Vischer who also made a name for himself as an aestheticist—and the father announced the event in the lecture-hall with the words: “Gentlemen, today I have been given a big Wischer (wigging) and a little Vischer!”

It was characteristic of him to speak very radically about things as he found them. For example, he wrote an amusing article entitled: “On the Foot Pest in Trains.” It enraged him to see people sitting in a railway carriage with their feet up on the opposite seat. He simply could not endure it and his article on the subject is really enchanting.

What he wrote in his book on fashions, [Mode und Zynismus. Stuttgart, 1878.] about the ill-breeding and lack of adequate clothing at dances and other entertainments, had better not be mentioned here. To put it briefly, he was a very original and forceful personality!

A friend of mine once paid him a visit, knocking politely at the door. I do not know whether it is a custom in Swabia, but Vischer did not say “Come in,” or what is usually said on such occasions. He yelled out “Glei”—meaning that he would be ready immediately.

While still comparatively young, Vischer embarked on a weighty task, namely that of writing a work on aesthetics according to the principles of Hegelian philosophy. These five volumes are a truly remarkable achievement. You will find in them the strict division into paragraphs which was habitual with Hegel, and the characteristic definitions. If I were to read a passage to you, you would all yawn, for it is written in the anything but popular style of Hegel, all in abrupt definitions, such as: The Beautiful is the appearance of the Idea in material form. The Sublime is the appearance of the Idea in material form, but the Idea predominates over the material form. The Comic is the appearance of the Idea in material form, but the material form predominates over the Idea ... and so on and so forth. These statements are certainly not without interest, but the book goes a great deal further. As well as the abrupt definitions, you have what is called the “small print,” and most people when they are reading the book leave out the large print and read only the small—which as a matter of fact contains some of the very cleverest writing on aesthetics that is anywhere to be found.

There is no pedantry, no Hegelian dialectic here; it is Vischer, the true Swabian, with all his meticulousness and at the same time his fine and delicate feeling for the beautiful, the great and the sublime. Here, too, you find Nature and her processes described in a way that defies comparison, with an exemplary freedom of style. Vischer worked at the book for many years, bringing it to its end with unfaltering consistency.

At the time when this work appeared,. Hegelianism was still in vogue and appreciation was widespread. Needless to say, there were opponents, too, but on the whole the book was widely admired. In course of time, however, a vigorous opponent appeared on the scenes, a ruthless critic who pulled the book to pieces until not a shred of good was left; everything was criticised in a really masterly style. And this critic was none other than Friedrich Theodor Vischer himself in his later years! There is an extraordinary charm about this critique of himself in his Kritische Gangen (Paths of Criticism).

As aestheticist, philosopher and man of letters, Vischer published a wealth of material in Kritische Gangen, and subsequently in the fine collection of essays entitled Altes und Neues (Old and New). While still a student he wrote lyrics in an ironic vein. In spite of the great admiration I have always had for Vischer, I could never help being of opinion that the productions of his student days were not even student-like, but sheer philistinism. And this trait came out in him again in his seventies, when he wrote a collection of poems under the pseudonym “Schartenmayer.” Here there is philistinism par excellence!

He was an out-and-out philistine in regard to Goethe's Faust. Part One ... well, he admitted there was something good in it, but as for Part Two—he considered it a product of senility, so many fragments patched together. He maintained that it ought to have been quite different, and not only did he write his Faust, der Tragodie dritter Teil, in which he satirises Goethe's Part Two, but he actually drew up a plan of just how Goethe ought to have written Faust. That is philistinism and no mistake! It is almost on a par with what du Bois-Reymond, the eminent scientist, said in his lecture “Goethe, nothing but Goethe.” He said: “Faust is a failure. It would have been all right if Faust had not engaged in such tomfoolery as the invocation of spirits or the calling up of the Earth-Spirit, but had simply and straightforwardly invented an electrical machine or an air pump and restored to Gretchen her good name ... ” And there is exactly the same kind of philistinism in what Vischer says about Faust.

Perhaps it would not be put like this in Wurttemburg, but in my homeland in Austria we should say that he gave Goethe's Faust a good “Swabian thrashing”! Such expressions differ slightly in meaning, of course, according to the districts where they are used.

It is these traits that are significant in Vischer. They really make up his personality. One might also, of course, give details of his life, but I do not propose to do that. My aim has been to give you a picture of his personality and with this as a foundation we can proceed to a study of his karma. Today I wanted simply to give you the material for this study.

A second personality of whose karma I want to speak, is Franz Schubert, the composer. As I said, it is a daring venture to give particular examples in this way, but it is right that they should be given and today I shall lay the foundations.

Here too, I shall select the features that will be needed when we come to speak of Schubert's karma. Practically all his life he was poor. Some time after his death, however, many persons claiming to have been not only his acquaintances but his “friends” were to be found in Vienna! A whole crowd of people, according to themselves, had wanted to lend him money, spoke of him affectionately as “little Franz” and the like. But during his lifetime it had been a very different story!

Schubert had, however, found one real friend. This friend, Baron von Spaun, was an extraordinarily nobleminded man. He had cared for Schubert with great tenderness from the latter's earliest youth, when they were schoolfellows, and he continued to do so in later years. In regard to karma it seems to me particularly significant—as we shall find when we come to consider the working of karma—that Spaun was in a profession quite alien to his character. He was a highly cultured man, a lover of art in every form, and a close friend not only of Schubert but also of Moritz von Schwind. He was deeply sensitive to everything in the way of art. Many strange things happen in Austria—as you know, Grillparzer was a clerk in the fiscal service—and Spaun too, who had not the slightest taste for it, spent his whole life in Treasury offices. He was an official engaged in administering finance, dealing with figures all the time. When he reached a certain age he was appointed Director of Lotteries! He had charge of lotteries in Austria—a task that was most distasteful to him. But now just think what it is that a Director of Lotteries has to control. He has, so to speak, to deal at a high level with the passions, the hopes, the blighted expectations, the disappointments, the dreams and superstitions of countless human beings. Just think of what has to be taken into account by a Director of Lotteries—a Chief Director at that. True, you may go into his office and come out again without noticing anything very striking. But the reality is there nevertheless, and those who take the world and its affairs in earnest must certainly reckon with such things.

This man, who had no part whatever in the superstitions, the disappointments, the longings, the hopes, with which he had to deal—this man was the intimate friend of Schubert, deeply and intensely concerned for his material as well as his spiritual well-being. One can often be astounded, outwardly speaking, at what is possible in the world! There is a biography of Schubert in which it is said that he looked rather like a negro. There is not a grain of truth in it. He actually had a pleasing, attractive face. What is true, however, is that he was poor. More often than not, even his supper, which he was in the habit of taking in Spaun's company, was paid for with infinite tact by the latter. Schubert had not enough money even to hire a piano for his own use. In outward demeanour—Spaun gives a very faithful picture here—Schubert was grave and reserved, almost phlegmatic. But an inner, volcanic fire could at times burst from him in a most surprising way.

A very interesting fact is that the most beautiful motifs in Schubert's music were generally written down in the early morning; as soon as he had wakened from sleep he would sit down and commit his most beautiful motifs to paper. At such times Spaun was often with him, for as is customary among the intellectuals of Vienna, both Schubert and Spaun liked a good drink of an evening, and the hour was apt to get so late that Schubert, who lived some distance away, could not be allowed to go home but would spend the night on some makeshift bed at his friend's house. On such occasions Spaun was often an actual witness of how Schubert, on rising in the morning, would write down his beautiful motifs, as though they came straight out of sleep.

The rather calm and peaceful exterior did not betray the presence of the volcanic fire lying hidden in the depths of the soul. But it was there, and it is precisely this aspect of Schubert's personality that I must describe to you as a basis for the study of his karma.

Let me tell you what happened on one occasion. Schubert had been to the Opera. He heard Gluck's Iphigenia and was enraptured by it. He expressed his enthusiasm to his friend Spaun during and after the performance in impassioned words, but at the same time with restraint. His emotions were delicate and tender, not violent. (I am selecting the particular traits we shall need for our study.) The moment Schubert heard Gluck's Iphigenia, he recognised it as a masterpiece of musical art. He was enchanted with the singer Milder; and Vogl's singing so enraptured him that he said his one wish was to be introduced to him in order that he might pay homage at his feet. When the performance was over, Schubert and Spaun went to the so-called Bargerstubi (Civic Club Room) in Vienna. I think they were accompanied by a third person whose name I have not in mind at the moment. They sat there quietly, although every now and again they spoke enthusiastically about their experience at the Opera. Sitting with others at a neighbouring table was a University professor well known in this circle. As he listened to the expressions of enthusiasm his face began to flush and became redder and redder. Then he began to mutter to himself, and when the muttering had gone on for a time without being commented on by the others, he fell into a rage and shouted across the table: “Iphigenia!—it isn't real music at all; it's trash. As for Milder, she hasn't an idea of how to sing, let alone bring off runs or trills! And Vogl—why he lumbers about the stage like an elephant!”

And now Schubert was simply not to be restrained! At any minute there was danger of a serious hand-to-hand scuffle. Schubert, who at other times was calm and composed, let loose his volcanic nature in full force and it was as much as the others could do to quiet him.

It is important for the life we are studying that here we have a man whose closest friend is a Treasury official, actually a Director of Lotteries, and that the two are led together by karma. Schubert's poverty is important in connection with his karma, because in these circumstances there was little opportunity for his anger to be roused in this way. Poverty restricted his social intercourse, and it was by no means often that he could have such a neighbour at table, or give vent to his volcanic nature.

If we can picture what was really happening on that occasion, and if we remember the characteristics of the people from whom Schubert sprang, we can ask ourselves the following question. (Negative supposition is of course meaningless in the long run, but it does sometimes help to make things clear.) We can ask ourselves: If the conditions had been different (of course they couldn't have been, only, as I say, the question can make for clarification)—if the conditions had been different, if Schubert had had no opportunity of giving expression to the musical talent within him, if he had not found a devoted friend in Spaun, might he not have become a mere brawler in some lower station in life? What expressed itself like a volcano that evening in the club room, was it not a fundamental trait in Schubert's character? Human life defies explanation until we can answer the question: How does the metamorphosis come about whereby in a certain life a man does not, so to say, live out his pugnacity but becomes an exquisite musician, the pugnacity being transformed into subtle and delicate musical phantasy?

It sounds paradoxical and grotesque, but for all that it is a question which, if we consider life in its wider range, must needs be asked, for it is only when we study such things that the deeper problems of karma really come into view.

The third personality of whom I want to speak is Eugen Dühring, a man much hated, but also—by a small circle—greatly loved. My investigations into karma have led me to occupy myself with this individual, too, and as before I will give you, first of all, the biographical material.

Eugen Dühring was a man of extraordinary gifts. In his youth he studied a whole number of subjects, particularly from the aspect of mathematics, including branches of knowledge such as political economy, philosophy, mechanics, physics and so on.

He gained his doctorate with an interesting treatise, and then in a book, long since out of print, followed up the same theme with great clarity and forcefulness. I will tell you a little about it. The subject is almost as difficult as the Theory of Relativity, but, after all, people have been talking about the Theory of Relativity for a long time now and, without understanding a single word, have considered, and still do consider it, quite wonderful. Difficult as the subject is, I want to tell you, in a way that will perhaps be comprehensible, something about the thoughts contained in this earliest work of Dühring.

The theme is as follows.—People generally picture to themselves: Out there is space, and it is infinite. Space is filled with matter. Matter is composed of minute particles, infinite in number. An infinite number of tiny particles have conglomerated into a ball in universal space, have in some way crystallised together, and the like. Then there is time, infinite time. The world has never had a beginning; neither can one say that it will have an end.

These vague, indefinite concepts of infinity were repellent to the young Dühring and he spoke with great perspicacity when he said that all this talk about infinity is devoid of real meaning, that even if one has to speak of myriads and myriads of world-atoms, or world-molecules, there must nevertheless be a definite, calculable number. However vast universal space is conceived to be, its magnitude must be capable of computation; so too, the stretch of universal time. Dühring expounded this theme with great clarity.

There is something psychological behind this. Dühring's one aim was clarity of thought, and there is no clear thinking at all in these notions of infinity. He went on to apply his argument in other domains, for example to the so-called “negative quantities.” Positive quantities (e.g. when something is possessed) are distinguished from negative quantities by writing a minus sign before the latter. Thus here you have 0 (zero), in one direction plus 1, and in the other direction minus 1, and so on.

Dühring maintains that all this talk about minus quantities is absolute nonsense. What does a “negative quantity,” a “minus number” mean? He says: If I have 5 and take away 1, then I have 4; if I have 5 and take away 2, then I have 3; if I have 5 and take away 4, then I have 1; and if I have 5 and take away 5, then I have 0. The advocates of negative quantities say: If I have 5 and take away 6, then I have minus 1; if I have 5 and take away 7, then I have minus 2.

Dühring maintains that there is no clarity of thinking here. What does “minus 1” mean? It means: I am supposed to take 6 from 5; but then I have I too little. What does “minus 2” mean? I am supposed to take 7 from 5; but then I have 2 too little. What does “minus 3” mean? I am supposed to take 8 from 5; but then I have 3 too little. There is no difference between the negative numbers, as numbers, and the positive numbers. The negative numbers mean only that when I have to subtract, I have too little by a particular amount. And Dühring went on to apply the same principle to mathematical concepts of many kinds.

I know how deeply I was impressed by this as a young man, for Dühring brought real clarity of thought to bear upon these things.

He displayed the same astute discernment in the fields of national economy and the history of philosophy, and became a lecturer at the University of Berlin. His audiences were very large and he lectured on a variety of subjects: national economy, philosophy, mathematics.

It so happened that a prize was offered by the Academy of Science at Göttingen for the best book on the history of mechanics. It is usual in such competitions for the essays to be sent in anonymously. The competitor chooses a motto, his name is contained inside a closed envelope with the motto written outside, so that the adjudicators are unaware of the author's identity.

The Göttingen Academy of Science awarded the prize to Eugen Dühring's History of Mechanics and wrote him a most appreciative letter. Therefore Dühring was not only recognised by his own circle of listeners as an excellent lecturer, but now gained the recognition of a most eminently learned body.

Along with all the talents which will be evident to you from what I have been saying, this same Dühring had a really malicious tongue—one cannot call it anything else. There was something of the malicious critic about him in regard to everything in the world. As time went on he exercised less and less restraint in this respect; and when such an eminently learned body as the Göttingen Academy of Science awarded him the prize, it acted like a sting upon him. It was quite in the natural course of things, but nevertheless it stung. And then we see two qualities beginning to be combined in him: an intensely strong sense of justice—which he undoubtedly possessed—and on the other hand an extraordinary propensity for abuse.

Just at the time when he was stung into abuse and sarcasm, Dühring had the misfortune to lose his sight. In spite of total blindness, however, he continued to lecture in Berlin. He went on with his work as an author, and was always able, up to a point, of course, to look after his affairs himself. About this time a truly tragic destiny in the academic world during the 19th century came to his knowledge—the destiny of Julius Robert Mayer, who was actually the discoverer of the heat-equivalent in mechanics and who, as can be stated with all certainty, had been shut up in an asylum through no fault of his own, put into a strait-jacket and treated shamefully by his family, his colleagues and his “friends.” It was at this time that Dühring wrote his book, Julius Robert Mayer, the Galileo of the 19th Century. And it was in truth a kind of Galileo-destiny that befell Julius Robert Mayer.

Dühring wrote with an extraordinarily good knowledge of the facts and with a really penetrating sense of justice, but he lashed out as with a rail in regard to the injuries that had been inflicted. His tongue simply ran away with him—as, for example, when he heard and, read about the erection of the well-known statue of Mayer at Heilbronn, and of the unveiling ceremony. “This puppet standing in the market square at Heilbronn is a final insult offered to the Galileo of the 19th century. The great man sits there with his legs crossed. But to portray him truly, in the frame of mind in which he would most probably be, he would have to be looking at the orator and at all the good friends below who erected this memorial, not sitting with his legs crossed but beating his breast in horror.”

Having suffered much at the hands of newspapers, Dühring also became a violent anti-Semite. Here too he was ruthlessly consistent. For example, he wrote the pamphlet entitled Die Ueberschätzung Lessings und dessen Anwaltschaft für die Juden, in which murderous abuse is hurled at Lessing. It is this trait in Dühring that is responsible for his particular way of expounding literature.

If you want one day to give yourselves the treat of reading something about German literature that you will find nowhere else, that is totally different from other treatises on the subject, then take Dühring's two volumes entitled Literaturgrössen (Great Men of Letters). There you will find his strictly mathematical way of thinking and his astute perspicacity, applied to literature. In order, presumably, to make it plain how his way of thinking differs from that of others, he sees fit to rechristen the great figures of the German spiritual life. He speaks, in one chapter, of “Kothe” and “Schillerer,” meaning Goethe and Schiller. Duhring writes “Kothe” and “Schillerer” and adheres to this throughout. The nomenclature he invents is often grotesque. “Intellectuaille” (connected with “canaille”) is how he always refers to people we call intellectualistic. The “Intellectuaille”—the Intellectuals. He uses similar expressions all the time. But let me assure you of this: a great deal in Dühring's writings is extraordinarily interesting.

I once had the following experience. When I was still on friendly terms with Frau Elizabeth Forster-Nietzsche and was working on unpublished writings of Nietzsche, there came into my hands the material dealing with the “Eternal Recurrence”, now long since printed. [Thus Spake Zarathustra, Part III.] Nietzsche's manuscripts are not very easy reading, but I came across a passage where I said to myself: This “Eternal Recurrence” has some definite source. And so I went over from the Archives, where Nietzsche's note-books were kept, to the Library, and looked up Dühring's Wirklichkeitsphilosophie (Philosophy of Reality), where, as I thought, I was quickly able to find this idea of “Eternal Recurrence”. I took the book from the shelves of the Library and found the passage—I knew it and found it at once—where Dühring argues that it is impossible for anyone with genuine knowledge of the material facts of the world to speak of a return of things, a return of constellations which once were there.

Dühring tried to disprove any such possibility. At the side of the passage in question was a word frequently written by Nietzsche in the margin of a book when he was using it to formulate a counter-idea. It was the word: “Ass”!

The familiar epithet was written in the margin of this particular page. In point of fact we can find in Dühring's writings a great deal that passed over, ingeniously, into Nietzsche's ideas. In saying this I hold nothing against Nietzsche. I am simply stating the facts as they are.

In respect of karma, the most striking thing about Dühring is that he was really able to think only mathematically. In philosophy, in political economy, in mathematics itself, he thinks mathematically, with mathematical precision and clarity. In natural science, too, he thinks with clarity but, again, in terms of mathematics. He is not a materialist, he is a mechanistic thinker. He conceives the world as mechanism. And moreover he had the courage to carry sincere convictions to their ultimate conclusions. For truth to tell, anyone who thinks as he did cannot write about Goethe and Schiller in any other way—leaving aside the abuse and taking only the essential substance of what is said.

So much for the fundamental trend of Dühring's thought. Add to this the blindness while he was still young, and the fact that he suffered no little personal injustice. He lost his post as lecturer at the University of Berlin. Well ... there were reasons! For example, in the second edition of his History of Mechanics he cast all restraint aside. The first edition had been quite tame in its treatment of the great figures in the field of mechanics, so tame that someone said he had written in a way which he thought would make it possible for a learned body to award him a prize. But in the second edition he no longer held himself in check; he let himself go and fairly filled in the gaps! Someone remarked—and Dühring often repeated it—that the Göttingen Academy had awarded a prize to the claws without recognising the lion behind the claws! But when the second edition appeared the lion had certainly come into the open!

In this second edition there were in truth some astounding passages, for example in connection with Julius Robert Mayer and his Galileo-destiny in the 19th century. On one occasion when Dühring was in a towering rage about this, he called a man he considered to be a plagiarist of Mayer—namely Hermann Helmholtz—so much “academic scaffolding,” “wooden scaffolding.” Later on he enlarged upon this theme. He edited a periodical Der Personalist, where everything had a strongly personal colouring. Here, for example, Dühring enlarges upon the reference to Helmholtz. He no longer speaks about wooden scaffolding, but when the postmortem examination had revealed the presence of water in Helmholtz's brain, Dühring said that the empty-headedness had been quite obvious while the man was still alive and that there was no need to wait for confirmation until after his death! Refinement was certainly not one of Dühring's qualities. One cannot exactly say that he raged like a washerwoman. His way of abusing was not commonplace; neither was there real genius in it. It was something quite unique.

And now take all these factors together: the blindness, the mechanistic bent of mind, the persecution he certainly suffered—for the dismissal from the University was not altogether free from injustice, and indeed countless injustices were done to him during his life ... All these things are connections of destiny which become really interesting only when we study them in the light of karma.

I have now given you a picture of these three personalities: Friedrich Theodor Vischer, the composer Schubert, and Eugen Dühring. Having outlined the biographical material today, I will speak tomorrow of the karmic connections.