The Karma of Vocation
25 November 1916, Dornach
Our present considerations will impress us with their deeper and real meaning only if we do not take them in a merely theoretical way, since they are in the highest sense truths of life. Rather, we must draw from them certain consequences for our feelings and sentiments that may enable us to look upon life differently than is often done by those who have not been prepared to do so by an anthroposophical view. Our minds must be broadened through spiritual science to grasp the truth of life. This means that we must learn to compare the nature of truth as it meets us in life with the one-sided thinking about the truth that so easily befalls people. It is all too easy to get into the habit of forming opinions about this or that, not merely about everyday matters but also about the most important facts of life, and then fortifying our point of view with this opinion, paying no attention to the fact that the world may be viewed from the most varied standpoints. Thus, we can attain to the truth only when we feel and realize how everything, every single fact, can be viewed from many standpoints. I will relate the course of a certain life in order that I may give you an example, a kind of illustration of what I mean. We are now dealing with what we call karma, the passage of the human being through repeated earthly lives, the destiny of man, which is expressed in the course a human life takes. We can learn much through the examples of individual lives if we view them correctly in the light of repeated earthly lives.
In this example, we have to do with a person who was born in the sixteenth century. In order to consider the hereditary influences that people today like to emphasize, let us first look at his father. The father of this man who was born in the sixteenth century was a rather versatile person but also an extraordinarily obstinate one; this was characterized by a certain harshness in the expression of his life. He was well-acquainted with music, played the lute and other string instruments, was also familiar with geometry and mathematics, and his profession was that of a merchant. His harshness may be more readily understandable from the following. He had a certain music teacher who, at that time in the sixteenth century, was a highly respected man. As a pupil of this man, he wrote a book on music, but this did not please his teacher and he took issue with it in a book of his own. The pupil then became really quite angry and wrote another volume in which he included all possible contempt he could muster against the “ancient and rusty views” of his music teacher. Then he dedicated the book to him, saying expressly in the dedication, “Since you deigned to turn against me in such an obtrusive manner, I want to give you an opportunity to experience this pleasure more often. You obviously enjoy this sort of thing and that is why I dedicate this book to you.”
The son of this man is the person whose course of life I wish to tell you about in a slightly disguised way. As was the custom in those days, he at first pursued the study of Greek and Latin with a famous teacher in Italy because his father attached great importance to having him well-instructed. He studied the humanities with a monk, learned mathematics from his father and, in addition, learned drawing, perspective, and the like with other teachers. Possessing an extraordinary capacity for mathematics and mechanics, he continued to excel in these fields and became quite a versatile young man. Even as a boy he had made all sorts of models of machines that were useful at that time. Today, you know, boys make only airplanes, but then other ships were made. At eighteen, the young man went to the university, studying medicine at first — excuse this just after we have heard that passage from Faust. 106 Prior to this lecture, a scene from Faust, Part I, had been performed: Mephisto and the freshman student. But he had a somewhat different experience than the student who has just been presented to you in that scene of “Mephisto and the Student.” He did not pass through his medical studies as if he were in a dream, nor did he say, “They're not so bad.” No, he really disliked studying medicine since he found that this discipline proceeded in an unsystematic way, one fact simply following after another with no true connection. Then he turned to philosophy. In those days it was the custom of some individuals to attack Aristotle, the Greek philosopher who had hitherto been so greatly honored. Having one of these critics as his teacher, our young man fell into the same habit of criticizing and hating Aristotle. Although his father was an extraordinarily competent man, he was not well-liked because of his various characteristics. So, after his son had studied for a few years, he did not have much money and tried to secure a scholarship for him. He did not succeed, however, and was compelled to provide further instruction for him with the money he earned with sweat and blood.
After the son had struggled through his medical and philosophical studies, he had reason to feel most fortunate. He became a professor at one of the most famous universities of his country, teaching mathematics and also practicing medicine, of which he had a good deal of knowledge from his student days. On the whole, he was a quite popular teacher. But at this university things got a little hot for him. This came about through a book that was published containing a description of a public project, a mechanical project. It was written by an eminent gentleman who was not too intelligent, but who was the son of an actual princely personality of that particular state. Our professor, although still relatively young, had little difficulty in proving it would be impossible to carry out this project. Much hostility was then aroused against him and, although he had already succeeded in attracting attention to himself through his accomplishments, he no longer felt entirely comfortable in that particular city and university. The opportunity arose to go to another university in a republican state. At this university also, he soon became well-known, had many students and, what was then a mere matter of course, gave many private lessons so that he had an excellent income. He needed a good deal of money because his father had died and he had to support his mother and sisters. In order that we may see a little more clearly into the karma of this person let me mention the following authenticated fact; it was related by a contemporary to whom it was told by the man himself. Moreover, no matter with what philological finesse the endeavor is made to get at the fact, it is demonstrably true. This man with whom we are dealing, now teaching in a republican university, once had a dream in which he saw himself walking over burning coals and ashes and knew that they must have come from the burning of the cathedral in the city where he had previously been a professor. He related this dream and also wrote of it in many letters. It was later revealed that the very same night he had this dream, the cathedral had actually burned down.
Now, he was most successful; indeed, he made significant scientific discoveries, for which others claimed part of the credit as was then the custom and is still so to some extent even now, without thanking him. He became fairly prosperous but not sufficiently so in his own mind, especially since he had to drive himself so hard. He had to give many private lessons, earning a little thereby, to be sure, but it required a good deal of work. Now, his Italian contemporaries and later others tell in an interesting way how he was a man so much occupied with his brain that — I simply repeat what was related — he had little time to pay attention to the impulses of his heart. He was, therefore, quite clever but somewhat less lovable. Thus, he never officially married but lived, as his contemporaries say, in a common-law marriage with a certain Marina Gamba by whom he had two daughters, whom he sent into a convent, and a son, whom he later legitimized. Although he became the instructor of many famous people — for example, he taught Gustav Adolf, who later became the king of Sweden — things were not entirely as he wished them. So he applied to the Grand Duke of his native land where he had previously been a professor. This was in 1610. The fact was that he was striving to gain more free time to devote to inventions and discoveries. It is interesting, therefore, to observe the man somewhat more carefully since he was really a sort of child of his age. For this reason I should like to read to you, in a pretty good translation, a letter that he wrote to obtain a more fitting position at the court of the Grand Duke. He writes to a friend about his correspondence with the Grand Duke:
Your grace's letter was heartily welcome, first, because it lets me know that his most serene Highness, the Grand Duke, my Lord, remembers me, and then because it assures me of the continued goodwill of the right honorable Signor Aeneas Piccolomini, infinitely highly treasured by me, as also of the love of your Grace, which causes you to perceive my interest and induces you to write me in such friendly fashion about circumstances of great importance. For this service I remain always under obligation both to the right honorable Signor Aeneas and also to your Grace, render you endless thanks, and consider it my duty, as evidence of the value I attach to such goodness, to speak with these gentlemen concerning thoughts and those life relationships in which it would be my desire to pass the years that still remain to me. I hope that an opportunity might present itself when the right honorable Aeneas, with his keenness and versatility, might give a more definite answer to our august Lord, toward whose Highness, in addition to that reverent relationship and most obedient subjection that is due him from every one of his loyal servants, I feel myself, moreover, inclined with such special devotion and, as I may be permitted to say, so much love. Even God does not require any other feeling of us than that we should love Him, but I would set aside every other interest, and there is no position whatever for which I would not exchange my own state if I should learn that this would please His Highness. This answer might then suffice to realize any decision it might please His Highness to form in regard to my person. But if, as we may assume, His Highness, full of humanity and goodness, which renders him worthy of fame among all others and will ever render him more and more worthy, will unite together with my service to him every other satisfaction for me, I will then not refrain from speaking my mind. For twenty years now, and indeed throughout the best part of my life, I have labored even to minute detail, as it is said, upon the demand of anybody and everybody, to share any small talent that had come into my possession from God or through my own endeavors in my vocation. But now I would really wish to attain sufficient leisure and peace to be able to bring to completion before my life ends three great works I have on my hands so that I may publish these. I would hope to do this perhaps to the honor of myself and also of everyone who might support me in such undertakings, through the fact that I would perhaps bring to those studying in this special field greater, more general, and more lasting service than I could otherwise do for the rest of my life. I do not believe that I could have greater leisure elsewhere than I have here as long as I am compelled to obtain the support of my family out of my official duties as a teacher and from private lessons. Moreover, I would not willingly do such work in another city than in this one, for various reasons that it would be too cumbersome to enumerate. Yet, the freedom I have here is not sufficient, since I must sacrifice, upon the demand of one person and another, many hours of the day and often the best. No matter how brilliant and generous a republic, to retain a remuneration from it without rendering service to its general community is not customary. As long as I am able to give lectures and to render service, no one in a republic can release me from this obligation without ending my income; in short, I cannot hope to receive such a favor from anyone else than an absolute prince. Yet I should not wish, after what I have said, to appear to make unjustified claims upon your Grace, as if I were seeking for support without a corresponding service and obligation. That is not my purpose; on the contrary. As concerns a corresponding service, I have various inventions of which even a single one would suffice to provide a support for my life, if I should meet a great prince who should take pleasure in it. Experience shows me that things that are, perhaps, of far less significant value have a great advantage for their discoverer, and it had always been my thought to place these things before my Prince and natural master rather than before others. He in turn could do with these things and with the inventor as he might see it, and to receive from them, if it should please him, not only the ore, but also the metal. I find new things of this kind every day and would find many more if I had the leisure and more favorable opportunities to secure skillful persons whose help I could utilize in various investigations. So far as concerns further the daily rendering of service — that is, public and private lectures — I have only a distaste against that venal servitude in which I must offer my work in exchange for whatever remuneration pleases any purchaser; but to render service to a Prince or a great Lord, and to anyone dependent upon him, would never cause me any feeling of repugnance. On the contrary, I would earnestly desire this and strive for it, and since your Grace wanted to know from me something about my income here, I will tell you that the compensation for my service amounts to 520 gold gulden, which will be changed to an equal number of scudi within a few months when I receive my new position, of which I am just as good as certain. This money I can in great part save, since I obtain a large supplementary assistance for the support of my household through having private students and through my earnings from private lessons, although I rather discourage than seek to give many such lessons. I have a far greater longing for more free time than for money, since I know that it would be much more difficult for me to acquire a sufficient sum of money to give me any distinction than a certain amount of fame through my scientific work.
This man was then really summoned to this court. The only requirement was that he deliver lectures on the occasions when there were unusual events, brilliant occasions, festival affairs at which the Grand Duke had to appear and where it was necessary to make a good impression on foreign visitors. As for the rest, he was simply to receive his support salary and devote himself entirely to his studies. For a time things went well, indeed. Even poets, noblemen, and princes honored him and held all kinds of festivities because they considered him a great man. He himself — it was on February 3, 1613 — composed the text for a masquerade in which he represented himself as Jupiter enthroned on the clouds. He could easily be recognized in his disguise and since the four moons of Jupiter had just been discovered by Galileo 107 Galileo Galilei (1564–1642). The letter is quoted from Angelo de Gubernatis, “Galileo Galilei,“ Deutsche Revue (March/April, 1909). and had been given the names of the four princes of the house, even these four princes appeared in the entourage. It was an altogether unusual, festive pageantry.
The kindness of the Prince, however, gradually subsided and after a certain time he actually betrayed this man of learning. The clergy found that his views did not agree with theirs. Moreover, he was impoverished at the close of his life and died in genuine disillusionment. He had thoroughly tasted the ingratitude and fickleness of fate. He had learned fully how some princes behave in the long run, and he had experienced the hatred of the clergy.
I have now given you a factual account of the life of a human being. But now I would like to relate this life story in a different way, from another perspective, as it were.
On February 18, 1564, the great Galileo was born. His father, Vincenzo Galileo, was extraordinarily well-acquainted with music, played the lute and other string instruments well, was occupied with geometry, and at first taught his son music himself. The boy pursued his studies in Latin and Greek with distinguished teachers; he learned the humanities with a monk and then went to the University of Pisa where he studied medicine without much satisfaction, then turned to philosophy, became an anti-Aristotelian under the influence of the contemporary anti-Aristotelian tendency. At that time he was already such a genius that one day as he sat in the Cathedral of Pisa watching the church lamp swing, he discovered the principle of the pendulum's isochronism, a most important discovery that has had significance ever since. This event was told by Galileo's contemporaries. I am constantly being told that this story is a myth, but I will continue to relate it because it is true.
In spite of the importance of Galileo's thoughts upon observing this swinging church lamp, his father could not obtain a stipend for him. Then, after he had pursued his geometrical studies, he became a professor at the University of Pisa. There he lectured on mathematics for sixty scudi a year and also practiced medicine. We know that he actually did practice medicine from a letter he wrote to his father in which he asked that the writings of the ancient physician Galen be sent him as a guide. He sharply criticized the writing of the highly placed but imprudent Cosimo I 108 Cosimo I de'Medici (1519–74), Duke of Florence (1537–69) and Grand Duke of Tuscany (1569–74). that was published at that time. Then things became too hot for him in Pisa and since the Venetian Republic invited him to teach there, appreciating him more than his native state, he went to Padua in 1592. Galileo Galilei became a professor at the University of Padua and lectured with great distinction on mathematics and related subjects; he also constructed sun dials according to special principles and perfected the knowledge of mechanics. It was there that Giambattista Doni in his letters on dreams wrote that Galileo had the dream of which I have told you; this was the dream where he was walking over glowing coals and ashes. The Cathedral of Pisa burned at the time Galileo had his dream, and he wrote of this in letters to many contemporaries. About this time he invented the proportional circles and machines for raising water, made important discoveries in connection with the telescope and the thermoscope, and made observations regarding the barometer and other things, credit for which was claimed by other people, whereas in most cases it is to be attributed to him. I have already told you the story of his common-law marriage; it happened as I related it so I need not repeat it. Likewise, his letter was written in the way I have told you. Thus, he was actually transferred from Padua back to his native state and things happened to him there as I have said. It was Galileo who produced that masquerade in which he represented himself as Jupiter enthroned on the clouds, and it was he who gave the names of the Medici to the four satellites of Jupiter, which led to their representing them at this festival. The fact that he was not well-treated by the clergy, and that, in relation to it, he was betrayed by his prince, is known from history. Although all sorts of things in the story of his recantation are true, the assertion made by everybody that he said, “And yet it does move,” is certainly false. I have frequently pointed this out.
So this is the matter when it is reenacted from another point of view. You will observe that even though I did not relate false things the first time, your feelings for the man were probably not the same as when I related the story the second time. And you will also agree that your feelings the second time were definitely those that almost every person has when he or she thinks about Galileo, the astronomer. You will see from this that much knowledge is lacking in what many think. They certainly do not know much about Galileo but think and feel about him, not because of what they know, but because the name Galileo Galilei has a certain significance in history.
We must take into consideration, however, that what a man produces through his genius has meaning for the physical world. The fact that there are satellites around Jupiter was a discovery of immense importance for the evolution of the earth, but it has no significance for the concerns of the spiritual world, that is, for the beings of the higher hierarchies. So it is with the other discoveries of Galileo. They are such that they have a great significance for the earth. What, then, was the substance of what I first related? It was his personal fate. Apart from the fact that Galileo was an important man because of his earthly discoveries, it was his personal fate, the misery he experienced in his vocation, his — well, what shall I say — perhaps his loyalty toward the Prince, and so forth. In other words, I first told you what his daily affairs were, but because it concerns him personally it is also what has significance when he bears it through the portal of death and has to develop it between death and a new birth. We must go into such studies as this to educate ourselves regarding the question of human destiny, which cuts so deeply into life. It is precisely with significant, distinguished human lives that we must do this.
There is much talk about heredity nowadays and many questions are considered solely in connection with it. I first told you the story of the life of Galileo in such a way that you could observe it without any preconception. I related his life to that of his father, so that we perhaps might again have an example of right thinking about the question of heredity. It is certainly impossible to think correctly of it without taking into consideration the teaching of repeated earthly lives. In such a thought process, heredity does not prove to be without meaning, but is, on the contrary, most meaningful. There also appears, however, the connection between the inherited characteristics and what the human being brings down from the spiritual world through his own individuality as a result of his previous earthly life. When we wish to decide what is really inherited, we simply have to look at the facts of life.
On a previous occasion I called your attention to the fact that the period of puberty is not taken into consideration at all by science today, whereas it should be when heredity is discussed. Up to this period a person must carry with him all the impulses of heredity. What comes later must be referred to another point of time. I mentioned this a week ago. But what, then, really is inherited? The unprejudiced observation of the following facts is testimony for the arbitrary manner in which scientists interpret things in this field, but they are utterly incapable of understanding them. Since it is known to anybody who can observe life, it must be known to every psychiatrist that there may be two sons in a family who have the same inherited potentialities. Let us define the two sets of hereditary potentialities that may be similar. First, there is a certain tendency to think out concepts and connections and to apply them to external life; second, there is a certain — what shall we call it? — peppy or fashionable bearing such as a businessman must have. Once there were two sons who both had these traits; that is, a certain self-consciousness and from it a certain boldness in bringing to realization what occurred to them. These were simply inherited characteristics, and it is thus that they must, in general, be conceived. But the question now is: What did each of them become? What course did their karmas take? One of them became a poet whose achievements were pretty respectable. The other became a swindler. The inherited characteristics were applicable to both activities; in one individual, they could be applied to the art of poetry, and in the other, to all kinds of swindles. Whatever comes from physical life was similar in these brothers. These things must really be studied conscientiously and earnestly and not in the way contemporary science often studies them. Indeed, we often find that the people themselves register the facts quite correctly nowadays, but they cannot make anything of them because they do not possess the ability to connect them with the great law of repeated earthly lives.
Influenced by the currents of our time, people in a few regions have begun to think of how it may be possible to assist nature according to the physical line of heredity, the stream of heredity, as the materialist says — they do not say Divine Providence. The brilliant minds of many individuals are especially impelled to reflect on how offspring may be produced in our sad time. But in the minds of most people, this question is identical with that of how families may be assisted to have as many children as possible; that is, how the conditions conducive to producing the greatest number of descendants may be established scientifically. One who can see through things can readily foresee what will come about. Those who are displaying their scientific theories about the best possible conditions for producing future progeny will be completely fooled simply because they refuse to learn anything. All they would have to do would be to observe the results in instances where excellent conditions existed for the production of children. For example, there is the case of the well-known Johann Sebastian Bach, 109 Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750). who was cantor in the Thomas School in Leipzig some two hundred years ago, and who played a great deal of music with his ten musical sons. No one can say that this family with ten sons was unfruitful. But you can go all the way back to the great grandfather of Johann Sebastian Bach. He also had sons. There were so many sons throughout the generations that almost the entire family was as prolific as Johann Sebastian himself. That is to say that what constitutes favorable conditions for having descendants was present in this family in the most eminent sense. Nevertheless, by 1850, a hundred years after the death of Johann Sebastian Bach, the entire family had died out; not a single descendant was left. There you have what needs to be studied. Thus, when people with their new method will have come up with their so-called favorable conditions, they will not be able to prevent the possible generation of ten-member families, but after fifty years such families may no longer exist.
We shall speak again tomorrow of how conditions arise under which humanity evolves and how these are quite different from those at which our natural philosophic world conception labors with its utter lack of all wisdom. But this scientific world conception is simply one of the outcroppings of materialism. I have already told you that those who are familiar with the fundamental laws of the occult conception of the world knew that in the middle of the nineteenth century we reached the lowest point — or, as the materialists might designate it, the highest point — of materialistic thinking, feeling, and willing. We have already learned to know much that is connected with this materialistic thinking, and we shall still have to learn much more. But what strikes us time and again is the fact that even well-meaning persons are by no means inclined to become acquainted with the materialistic impulses dominating the depths and heights regarding human perception and will. Here people are really astonishingly little inclined to submit to what has so often been discussed, that is, to seeing the world with open eyes. What will become of the world if the views that have spread over the entire earth in the second half of the nineteenth century continue to develop further? In the course of these lectures we shall have to speak about the deep inner reasons for these things in our time.
We must, however, confront our souls with the question of how far things have really gone in some fields. Indeed, the nineteenth century was the period in which the view was presented that a real scientist could not possibly accept the childish and absurd conceptions of the ancient religions. What has been preserved in them — and we shall later discuss how it has been preserved — was considered mere childishness. It was considered the mark of an enlightened person to have risen above the assumption of a spiritual-psychic organism in the human being and that he is to be especially distinguished from animals. Not only was the endeavor made to establish a physical connection between human beings and animals, but the endeavor was also made to prove that they are nothing but animals, that is, simply a little different from other animals just as other animals differ from one another. That is the very point these people wanted to make, and it was from this point of view that not only natural histories were written, but also psychological texts. Pick up at random what the dominant people of the nineteenth century have written, and you will find at what conceptions man has actually arrived.
I have a book here before me; it is, in a certain sense, a book representing profoundly decisive views of the nineteenth century for it deals with the human soul. Every possible effort is made in this book to prove that this soul is something simply talked about by stupid people of earlier and present times. It was written in 1865, but these views were disseminated, and though some people say today that we have passed beyond that, we have not, but are still deep within it in the life of feeling and of general culture. The book deals with the human soul, but a special effort is made to demonstrate that the animal soul is the same as that of humans. In particular, you will find in it a neat definition of women and men. The author says that women represent in their peculiar characteristics a greater tendency to spirituality, whereas men represent more the tendency to materialism. In other words, according to this statement, spirituality is a weakness of women! The author then finds that certain crazy psychologists still speak about an ego that distinguishes man from animal. But he says in a delicate way that the cat, for example, shows that it also says “I;” that it has the same kind of consciousness of the ego, so the author expresses it, as our vague and super-sensible psychologists because the ego consciousness of the cat is not in the least different from that of the human being. Then comes a passage that is quoted from another book with which, however, the author is in full agreement. I shall read this passage, and I beg you to excuse the fact that the language is a bit off-color, but this is not my fault. It is the fault of the philosophy that has developed under such influences and that proposes to project living impulses into the future, asserting that it is the only philosophy today worthy of the human being. The passage reads:
The theologians and metaphysicians of our age pretend that man is the only religious animal. This is utterly false and the error is entirely in keeping with that made by some travelers who conclude, from the absence of organized cults, that religion is absent among certain savage peoples. Among a great proportion of the entire succession of animals, including even the molluscs, indications are to be found of fetishism and star worship. [ So we find among the molluscs and other animals indications of fetishism and worship of the stars.] Those that most nearly approach the human being live in veritable polytheistic anthropolatry. Our domestic dog barks at the moon and howls in a particular way when it is at the seashore; it may also be seen on certain occasions making use of whatever lustral water is available and carrying out more or less obscure rites. Who would be able to prove that there have never been high priests among dogs? What could have degraded the poor animal to the point of causing him to lick the hand that strikes him if this was not done by religious and superstitious ideas? How is one to explain, except on the basis of a profound anthropolatry, the voluntary submission to man of so many animals stronger and more active than he? To be sure, it will be said that the animal frequently devours his god, but primus in orbo deos fecit timor (fear, first of all things on earth, created gods). ... Besides, the sectarians of most of the religions also eat theirs!
The book in which this view is approved is entitled Materialism and Spiritualism and was written by Leblais 110 Alphonse Leblais, Matérialisme et Spiritualisme (Paris, 1865). with a preface by Littré, 111 Maximilian Lime (1801–81) was a philosopher, linguist, and follower of the positivist Auguste Comte (1798–1857). a man who produced a whole series of writings. In 1871 he was elected to the National Assembly and in the same year was made a member of the Academy. This same Littré, a man known throughout the entire world, wrote the preface to this book. It deals with the human soul and simply expresses in an emphatic way what in essence is pulsing through many souls today. It is only because people are so little inclined to observe life that they fail to see the important bearing it has upon the course of human evolution, to the sorrow and pain of anyone who sees into these things.
Thus, I wanted to present to you a by no means isolated example of the presence of materialistic views in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Now let us ask whether such views are without significance for external life. Do they not gradually penetrate into this external life? Do they not mold and form this external life? Just yesterday I was sent a book by a member, the young Swiss Albert Steffen, 112 Albert Steffen (1884–1963), Swiss poet and writer, became president of the Anthroposophical Society after the death of Rudolf Steiner. in which he could observe various currents of our time, because he is, in a certain sense, permeated by those impulses that are at play in spiritual science. Young Steffen describes a little of what can be experienced by a man who permits the influences of materialism on the molding of the social world to work upon him.
In his novel, which is called The True Lover of Destiny (Der rechte Liebhaber des Schicksals), there is a character named Arthur who records a fragment of his life for a certain purpose. It is, to be sure, a section taken from a novel, but it describes much of what pulses today in life. So this Arthur describes a fragment from that part of his life when materialism takes hold of humanity and forms the social order. Arthur says:
At twenty-one, I went to a metropolis for the first time — not the city in which I now live — in order to begin my studies.
One the day of my arrival I took a look at the streets. It was raining. Everything was murky and dirty.The people all showed the same indifferent but hurried pace, one just like another. I felt myself overcome immediately by an inner barrenness. I stopped in front of a billboard to see where I might spend the evening. I read one poster that called for a meeting in favor of prohibition. A man came with a pastepot and brush and pasted a beer bottle poster over it.
The very mark of our age — a poster in favor of anti-alcoholism with a beer bottle poster pasted over it!
Then suddenly I understood the significance of the mood that had taken possession of me since I arrived in this city: it was foolish to wish to improve human beings.
Disabled people stood to the right and left on the streets, yet no one had time to consider their misfortune. Women passed by and offered themselves and nobody showed pity or indignation. Suddenly it seemed to me almost astonishing that the shopkeepers did not come out of their shops to smash everything to pieces and shout, “What does it matter?” But then I perceived that the only reason that people did not despair was because they were already too commonplace, too cunning, too thievish. They were entirely too much at home in these alleys.
And did I then despair? I must confess that I greedily sucked up the mood of this alley. With a shuddering lust for death I took in the certainty that everything was on the way to destruction. The people who met me bore the unmistakable signs of degeneration. The houses reeked of corruption. Even the gray sky seemed to drop something heavy and inevitable from its clouds.
This feeling grew stronger in me. In this state of soul I sought out almost unconsciously darker and darker alleys. I went into courtyards full of refuse. I stared into windows and witnessed dreadful crimes. I read the notices that swindlers and procuresses thrust into my hands. Finally, I climbed aboard one of the buses that roared with terrific power through the streets. I closed my eyes. The thundering noise rumbled through me like a hymn of death.
Suddenly the vehicle stopped. I stooped over and heard a few indifferent words. A child had run across the street, had been caught under a wheel and was carried away dead. We continued our way.
From this moment on something within me was paralyzed. I could now see the horrible thing that this city was, and it no longer horrified, angered, or disgusted me. It seemed to me quite natural.
More: I had to laugh at anybody who wanted to change it.
Could a person move otherwise in this fever of hunger, thirst, and passions?
My father came from a family of pastors. He studied natural science and absorbed its results with great enthusiasm. It made him clear in thought, thorough, broad-minded and, in the truest sense of the word, human. He applied all his powers to the investigation of the sensory world. The super-sensible did not interest him. At least, I learned nothing of it from him.
In my childhood I adopted his view of the world without investigating whether its theories might be one-sided, just as an admiring child receives the truth from his father. But I did not yet possess his steadfastness of character that is acquired in the course of life, nor the religiousness he inherited from his ancestors, which he denied, but which was nonetheless in his nature. I did not have such a stock to live on. No pious practices were taught me in my youth that would have enriched and deepened my soul and could have worked on further in me.
Now bear in mind how often I have said — I have brought this to your attention for years — that the first generation will still be able to live with materialism because it lives under the spiritual influence received from its forefathers, but that the succeeding generation would degenerate under materialism and would go to ruin. It is gratifying — if such a thing can be gratifying — that this truth passes over now even into literature. Steffen's narrator continues:
Perhaps this is why the effect of scientific knowledge on me was different from what it was on my father. That inner inheritance prevented him from carrying over into life what he had attained as knowledge. In my case it was quite different; this single day had the effect of reversing, so to speak, the direction of my will.
My father confessed to an intellectual satisfaction when he reflected that the human being is dissipated after death and no longer exists. The certainty of this, and it seemed certain to me, evoked in me a sort of ecstatic impulse to self-destruction and, as a result, heartlessness and lust for crime.
I recently pointed out to you that modern humanity is cruel even in its use of concepts. Now we read here:
That evening I had become empty, void of feeling, and cruel, and I did not say No to these characteristics. In the succeeding time I lived entirely without scruple. And just because my action arose not from an impulse that I was unable to master, but from a certain logic and strength of will, the effect on me was twice as disastrous. I knew this. I was absolutely wicked.
He now relates how he fell into bad company, led another into bad company, and so forth. This you can read yourselves. But there is another brief passage to which I should like to call attention because it is symptomatic. A number of Arthur's acquaintances are together, all of them persons “worthy of honor,” who intended the best within their group. But Arthur has to slip away on one occasion, and he then sits alone at an empty table. Steffan narrates the incident as follows:
After a while a gentleman sat down opposite him whose face struck him because it bore an astonishing likeness to his own. It was pale, lean, smoothly shaven, but with somewhat more witch-like lines.
A peddlar came, put his glasses on his nose, untied a bundle of picture postcards and, with a sleight-of-hand rapidity, put them first before Arthur, then before the stranger all the while looking into the face of the one under whose nose he held them as if he might see his chances there. Arthur turned away in disgust. The stranger went through them carefully and selected about ten, which he put together and tore to pieces. “These persons should not be given the opportunity to earn anything,” he said to Arthur. “Of course, he will order a double supply of those I purchased. They were the most dreadful of all. But I saw so many decent working class couples here that I was afraid he would show these cards to them.”
“How can anyone look at such pictures?” asked Arthur.
“Surrender yourself for a moment, without resistance, to the fumes in here, and you will see that figures take form in your soul whose movements are just as ugly as is depicted on the postcards. What are our places of entertainment today other than hells? You need only test your feelings after you have left them — smoke, fumes, prostitutes. You do not take anything noble away with you.”
“Why are you, then, in this dangerous place?” asked Arthur.
“Because I consider it necessary that someone should be here who is disgusted. The thought of the necessity for disgust in our time came to me a few days ago at an exhibit of Greek vases. The Greeks did not need to be disgusted in order to attain to beauty. They lived in it from the beginning. But we need this disgust if we wish to stand completely in life, in order to value the world correctly, in order to come to the spirit within us, in order to protect the God within us. It was different with the Greeks. When they surrendered themselves to life, they fulfilled also the laws of the spirit. They did not need to constantly defend and arm themselves. The work of man everywhere made the human being beautiful — the buildings, the art, the customs, the utensils, even to the smallest thing. But we become ugly through everything that surrounds us — streets, posters, movies, popular music — everything makes us barren, everything destroys us ...”
Here is a question we must study: what lives at first in the thought world, and in the world of feeling, how does it flow into the social world? It is not good simply to sleep through life, not knowing what has been working at the bottom of it before it has come to its ultimate consequence. After all, the reason such a man, who has taken into himself something from spiritual science, describes this life well is because he has an eye for it.