The Michael Mystery
XXVII. The Apparent Extinction of the Knowledge of the Spirit in the New Age
Whoever would form a just estimate of Anthroposophy and the relation it bears to the evolution of the Spiritual soul, must look ever and again at the particular constitution of mind among civilized humanity, which began with the rise of the natural sciences and reached its culmination in the nineteenth century.
Let him but place the peculiar character of this age before his soul's eye, and compare it with that of earlier ages. At all times during mankind's conscious evolution, Knowledge was regarded as being that which brings Man together with the world of Spirit. Whatever a man was in relation to the Spirit, that he ascribed to Knowledge. In Art, as in Religion, Knowledge lived.
A change came with the first dawning gleams of the Age of Consciousness. Knowledge now began no more to concern itself with a great part of human soul-life. It was bent upon investigating the kind of relation which Man develops towards external existence when he directs his senses and his reasoning mind on to the world of ‘Nature.’ But it refused any longer to concern itself with the relations which Man develops towards the Spirit-world when he makes the same use of his inner faculties of perception as he does of his outer senses.
Thus it came about of necessity that the spiritual life of Man became linked, not with the Knowing of the present age, but with the Knowledge of past ages — with Tradition.
A split came into Man's soul-life; it fell into two. Before him was Nature-knowledge on the one side, striving ever further and further afield, unfolding its powers in the actual and living present. On the other side was the inner life, with its feeling-experience of a relation to the Spirit-world that once, in olden times, had been fed from a corresponding fount of knowledge. From this feeling-experience there gradually faded away all understanding as to how, in olden times, the corresponding knowledge had come about. Men possessed the tradition, but no longer the way by which the truths handed down by tradition had been known. They could only believe in the tradition.
Anyone who considered the spiritual situation with a perfectly calm and luminous mind, about the middle of the nineteenth century, could not but have said to himself: “Humanity has reached a point when the only knowledge which it still thinks itself capable of developing has nothing to do with the spirit. Whatever it is possible to know about the spirit, mankind in former times was able to discover to-day the capacity for such discovery has gone from the human soul.”
In all its force and bearings, however, people did not place the situation thus clearly before the mind's eye. They confined themselves to saying, “Knowledge simply does not reach to the spiritual world; the spiritual world can only be an object of Faith.”
It may shed some light on the matter, if we look back into the times when Grecian wisdom was forced to yield place to the Christianized Roman world. When the last schools of Greek Philosophy were closed by the Roman emperor, the last treasures too of ancient spiritual learnings wandered away from the soil on which henceforth the European spirit developed its life and thought. They found connection with the Academy of Gondi Shapur, in Asia. This was one of the places where, owing to the deeds of Alexander, the tradition of the ancient learning had remained preserved in the East. In the form which Aristotle had been able to give it, this ancient learning was still living there.
It was caught however in the tide of that eastern stream which one may name Arabism. Arabism is, in one aspect of its character, a premature development of the Spiritual Soul. Through a soul-life working prematurely in the direction of the Spiritual Soul, Arabism afforded the opportunity for a spiritual wave to pour itself from Asia through this channel over Africa, Southern Europe, Western Europe, — and so to fill certain members of European humanity with an intellectualism which ought only to have come later. Southern and Western Europe received, in the seventh and eighth centuries, spiritual impulses which should really not have come until the age of the Spiritual Soul.
This spiritual wave could awaken the intellectual life in Man, but not that deeper level of experience by which the soul enters into the spiritual world.
And so, when Man was exercising his faculties of knowledge in the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries, he could only go down to a depth of soul not deep enough for him to light upon the spiritual world.
The Arabism by which European spiritual life was invaded kept human souls in their life of Knowledge back from the spiritual world. Prematurely, it brought into action that intellect which can only take hold of external Nature.
And this Arabism proved very powerful. Upon whomsoever it laid its grasp, an inward and for the most part all-unconscious arrogance began to take hold of this person's soul. He felt the power of intellectualism, but did not feel the inability of the mere intellect to penetrate into reality. So he abandoned himself to that external reality which comes of its own accord to men and works upon their senses. He never thought of taking any step towards the spiritual reality.
This was the situation with which the spiritual life of the Middle Ages was faced. It had inherited the mighty traditions of the spirit-world; but all its soul-life was so steeped in intellectualism through — one might say — the covert influence of Arabism, that knowledge found no access to the sources whence the inherited traditions, after all, drew their substance.
Thenceforth, from the early Middle Ages on, there was a constant struggle between what was instinctively felt in men's minds as a link with the Spirit, and the form which Thought had assumed under Arabism.
Men felt within them the world of ideas. To their inner life it was an immediate reality. But they could not find in their souls the power to experience, within the Ideas, the living Spirit.
Thus arose the Realist philosophy, which felt a reality in the Ideas, but could not find this reality. This Realist philosophy heard in the Idea-world the speech of the Cosmic Word, but was not able to understand its language.
The Nominalist philosophy, on the other hand, contended that since the speech was not understandable it was not there at all. For Nominalism, the world of Ideas was only a collection of formulae in the human soul, without root in any spiritual reality.
What was here surging in these two opposing currents, lived on into the nineteenth century. Nominalism became the scientific school of thought, for the knowledge of the natural world. From external data of the sense-world it built up a grand conceptual structure, but it reduced to nothing all insight into the inner being of the world of Ideas. ‘Realism’ lived a dead existence. It knew of the reality of the world of Ideas, but could not attain to it in living and perceptive knowledge.
Men will however attain to it when Anthroposophy finds the way to a living experience of the Spirit in the Ideas. Side by side with the Nominalism of the natural sciences must stand a Realism truly advanced and developed, bringing a way of knowledge which shows that the knowledge of spiritual things has not died out in mankind, but can rise anew from new-opened sources in the human soul, and flow once more through human evolution.
Anyone who turns the eyes of his soul upon the course of human evolution in the age of Natural Science, is met at first sight by a gloomy prospect. Splendid is the growth of Man's knowledge in respect to all things of the external world. But there comes over him, in return, a peculiar form of consciousness, as though a knowledge of the spiritual world had ceased to be possible at all.
It seems as though such Knowledge could only have been possessed by men in olden times, and as though with regard to the spiritual world people must simply remain content to accept the old traditions and make them an object of Belief.
From the resulting uncertainty during the Middle Ages concerning Man's relation to the spiritual world, there arose on the one hand a disbelief in the real spirit-content of Ideas — represented by Nominalism, of which the modern scientific view of Nature is a continuation — and on the other hand, as a knowledge of the reality of Ideas, Realism, which, however can only find its fulfillment in Anthroposophy.