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The Rudolf Steiner Archive

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Aspects of Human Evolution
GA 176

Lecture I

29 May 1917, Berlin

At present, the circumstances of life do not lend themselves to celebration of festivals in the usual sense. In these difficult times it would be best for us to investigate aspects of spiritual science which in some measure can help us understand the deeper-lying causes of the present situation. In view of this, I propose to speak about certain results of spiritual investigation which throw light on this question. Let us try to focus our attention on a certain aspect of mankind's evolution during post-Atlantean times up to the present.

We know from various subjects, discussed on earlier occasions, that it is possible in a certain sense to compare mankind's evolution as a whole with the development gone through by the individual, if for no other reason than that, at least at first sight, both appear as a progress taking place in time. In particular, I have been investigating, for years, the inner evolutionary conditions of post-Atlantean humanity. Much has come to light, especially this winter, which is of great significance also in relation to the question just mentioned.

From an external viewpoint it may seem that when human progress is observed over a certain length of time, one cannot but come to the conclusion that a certain section of mankind's evolution corresponds to the development of the individual between this and that given age. It would therefore seem that mankind's evolution as a whole follows a course similar to that of the individual human being. However, investigation shows that this is by no means the case. Furthermore it is also revealed that important secrets, particularly in relation to the present age, are connected with the fact that this is not true. Going back to the first post-Atlantean cultural epoch, which we can do with the help of concepts familiar to us from spiritual science, the epoch we usually designate as the ancient Indian, we may ask: Which age in the life of the individual human being corresponds to mankind's age in general in that ancient epoch? Spiritual investigation discovers something quite remarkable. I have often mentioned that today it is too lightly assumed that in former times, within the cultures that were then in existence, man's soul configuration was more or less as it is now. That assumption is quite wrong and has arisen because modern man, with his materialistic-scientific outlook, is simply incapable of forming any idea of how man's soul, and in particular his inner life, has changed within a comparatively short period.

If we look at the human being as he is today, we notice that during a certain period of his development his physical body is the first to mature. His bodily organs develop both in their coarser and finer structure. Not only does the human being become larger, his organs become more perfect externally as well as internally. We see that up to a certain age the development of his spirit and soul is bound up with the development of the physical body; the two as it were take a parallel course. No educator can ignore this fact with impunity. We also know that this interweaving of the spirit and soul development with that of the body comes to an end at a certain age. Man is then considered fully developed. When we look at life, we cannot fail to notice that human beings, as early as possible, consider themselves a finished product with no need for any further learning. To suggest that they may read Goethe's Iphigenia or Schiller's Wilhelm Tell after a certain age is considered by many to be asking too much. This is something one reads at school, it belongs to youth; in later life one no longer concerns oneself with such things! This may not be a general view but it is certainly very widespread, and a similar attitude can be observed in many other spheres of life. It is an attitude that has its origin in something quite fundamental. From a certain point in his life man is physically fully developed. At that moment his spirit and soul being ceases to be dependent on his bodily organs whose growth and development have come to an end. We are aware that from then on his spirit and soul become free of the body and develop independently. When we observe man as he is today we find that this moment occurs at a certain age—more will be said about this later—but one would be very much mistaken in believing that this occurrence took place in remotely the same way in the first postAtlantean cultural epoch.

During that ancient epoch man naturally passed through the ages of 6, 12, 20, 30, 40, 50 and so on, but through his whole life he experienced growing older differently from the way it is experienced today. During that epoch man felt, right up to a mature age, right up into the years from 48 to 56, the dependence of his spirit-soul being on his physical-bodily nature. He felt this to an extent which today is the case only in childhood and early youth. You must realize what this meant; it meant that while the body was growing man felt the soul's participation in the body's growth and development right up to the age of 35. After that he began to experience the soul's participation in the body's decline. He felt his soul's dependence on the body's evolution. While at first the body would be in a condition of growth and development, it would gradually come into a condition of decline. Because modern man's spirit-soul being is comparatively independent of his bodily nature, he does not notice when the decline begins. In the first post-Atlantean epoch those who reached this age felt with the decline of the body a universal spirituality becoming free within them.

The fact that the bodily nature began to decline while the soul was still dependent on it caused the spirit to light up within man. Immediately after the Atlantean catastrophe this condition lasted right up to the age of 56. Only then one might say was man fully developed; only then did his spirit-soul being cease to be dependent on the bodily nature. That there were at that time echoes of inner spiritual vision was because man's spirit and soul participated in the bodily nature during its decline. This condition and quality of human life threw its light over the whole culture. Young people were aware, because it was common knowledge and experience, that when they grew old, when they reached a venerable age, divine secrets would reveal themselves in their souls. This was the reason that there existed in that first post-Atlantean cultural epoch a veneration, a worship of old age of which today we can have no idea unless we perceive it in the spiritual echoes remaining from that ancient time. After all the things already said I need hardly mention that those who died before they had reached that patriarchal age knew of a world other than the physical-material one. They knew: In that world, those who died young had other tasks to accomplish together with higher beings of soul and spirit. Thus everyone, also when they died before reaching old age, still had a satisfying view of life and the world.

The remarkable fact is that when these things are investigated one cannot speak of mankind becoming older; curiously enough one must say mankind becomes ever younger, that it goes back towards youth. Immediately after the Atlantean catastrophe man developed, in the way I have described, up to the age of 56, then followed the time when he did so up to the age of 55, then 54 and so on. When the first post-Atlantean cultural epoch came to an end, development lasted only up to the age of 48. At that point man had as it were to say to himself: I am now on my own, my bodily nature no longer contributes to the development of my soul and spirit. And, as we have seen, this now occurred much earlier than at the start of the ancient Indian cultural epoch.

We then come to the second, the ancient Persian epoch. This epoch corresponds to the phase the individual passes through between 48 and 42. In other words in this epoch man felt his spirit and soul being's development to be dependent on his bodily nature up into his forties. Only when he was beyond the forties did he experience that independence from the body which at the present time occurs at a much earlier age. This meant that in the ancient Persian epoch the soul did not participate for so long, nor as intensely, in the decline, the sclerosis of the organism. The soul did not participate for so long in those forces that arose from the declining organism and that could lead man into the spiritual world, illumining it for him.

After the ancient Persian cultural epoch followed the one we designate as the Egyptian-Chaldean epoch. Now mankind's age as a whole dropped to what corresponds in the individual to the years between 42 and 35. That meant that in the Egyptian-Chaldean epoch the fruit of development came to man of itself in the beginning up to the age of 42, then 41, later 40 and so on. After that he had to accomplish his own independent inner development.

These facts appear to have the greatest significance for the fourth, the Graeco-Latin epoch. In this epoch mankind as a whole developed so that the age of post-Atlantean humanity corresponded successively to that of the individual between 35 and 28. These are the years leading up to the middle of life. We must be quite clear about what occurred in the Graeco-Latin epoch. The individual human being within this epoch experienced, simply through the laws governing mankind's evolution, his spirit-soul being's dependence on the body's growth and development. But just at the time when the body's decline set in, when it began to become sclerotic—if I may use that expression, which of course is somewhat radical—the soul became free from the body. The first half of life made a person belong to the Graeco-Latin culture by virtue of mankind's evolution in general. During this epoch the evolution of the individual coincided so exactly with mankind's evolution as a whole that, at the moment when human beings began to experience the decline of the body, nothing more was revealed to man through it. That is why so much of Greek culture reveals youthfulness, vitality and flourishing growth. However, what can be revealed only through the bodily nature in its decline eluded the Greek. This meant that such revelations were lost to him unless he received spiritual instruction in the mysteries. Direct vision of the spiritual world was lost through human nature itself.

In the third epoch simply through his nature it was possible for man to see into the spiritual world, though in decreasing measure. It was possible for him through direct vision to know about the soul's immortality. In the GraecoLatin epoch man could indeed know that everything growing, flourishing, everything coming into being is permeated with soul and spirit. But the soul's independent life after death, or before it had entered physical life through birth, was no longer obvious to the Greek simply through human evolution as such. That is the reason for the well-known saying expressed by the Greek heroes: “It is better to be a beggar in the upper world than a king in the realm of the shades.”1“It is better to be a beggar ...” Homer, Odyssey, eleventh book, verses 289-291; the speech of Achilles.

The Greeks knew through direct vision that the “upper world” and man within it was permeated by soul and spirit. It was just because of this vision that the spiritual world as such eluded them. It is interesting that the eminent Greek sage Aristotle developed his ideas precisely on this fundamental view of the Greeks. The great Aristotle scholar Franz Brentano2Franz Brentano, 1838–1917, professor in Vienna 1874–1880; Psychologie vom empirischen Standpunkte, Bd. I, 1874. was right when he said that Aristotle's view of immortality was that after death man was no longer a complete human being. As a Greek, Aristotle had the view I have described, and he therefore presupposed that for a human being to be complete, body and soul must be together. Those like Aristotle who were not initiated in the mysteries said: If a man's arm is cut off, he is no longer a complete human being; if both arms are cut off, he is even less complete; if the whole body is taken from him as happens in death, then he is truly no longer a complete man. This view is certainly not true in the light of higher knowledge; it originated with the Greeks, even with those whose thinking, as in the case of Aristotle, had reached the highest eminence. After the soul has gone through death, man, according to Aristotle, is incomplete because he lacks organs that could bring him into communication with any kind of environment. Brentano rightly recognized that this was Aristotle's view of immortality.

Now bear in mind that during this epoch mankind in general passed through the ages which correspond in the individual to those between 35 and 28. If we take the first third of this time span we come to about the age of 33. The fourth post-Atlantean epoch began in the year 747 before the Mystery of Golgotha, and ended in the year 1413 after the Mystery of Golgotha. If evolution had continued as it had up to the fourth epoch, with mankind unavoidably becoming younger and younger, then man would have experienced not just the shadow-like immortality which the Greeks visualized. His spirit-soul being would at an ever earlier age cease to be dependent on the body. This independence would happen long before his bodily growth and development had ceased, and before he had reached the middle of life. As mankind in general attained no more than the age of 34, then 33, 32 and so on, the body would gradually have overwhelmed him. Through his individual evolution he would no longer have been able to look up to any kind of spiritual world. That is why it is of such immense significance that at the end of the first third of the epoch which began in 747 B.C. the Mystery of Golgotha took place, and that just at this point in time Christ Jesus reached the age of 33 which at that time was also the age of mankind. At that point the death on Golgotha took place. Christ Jesus had evolved so that His age and that of mankind coincided at the moment when, through the Mystery of Golgotha, the possibility arose for knowledge of immortality to be obtained directly without any physical intermediary. This knowledge can be attained on earth only because of the fructification the earth received when the Christ Spirit united with the personality of Jesus, just when His age and that of mankind coincided at the moment in time when mankind was threatened with loss of all connection with the spiritual world.

It affects one deeply when, in considering mankind's evolution as such with quite different assumptions, one discovers during spiritual investigation the deep connection between mankind's earthly evolution and the age and death of Christ Jesus. I can think of little which must have a greater impact on the soul than knowledge of the placement of the Mystery of Golgotha within an important law of development governing the individual person and the evolution of humanity as a whole. We see how spiritual knowledge gradually explains and illumines the Mystery of Golgotha. And we can perhaps sense that as spiritual science continues to widen and develop conscientious investigations, it will throw light on many more aspects of this event. It is certain that as yet we on earth, even with the penetrating research of spiritual science, grasp the Mystery of Golgotha only to the smallest extent. The Mystery of Golgotha will be understood ever more and at ever deeper levels the further mankind progresses in spiritual knowledge. I venture to say that during my spiritual research, few moments have been more moving than when—let me put it in these words—there arose for me, out of the grey mist of the spirit, the recognition of the connection between mankind's age of 33 in the fourth post-Atlantean epoch and the age of 33 of Christ Jesus just when the death on Golgotha took place.

Continuing mankind's post-Atlantean evolution we come to our own, the fifth epoch. During this epoch the age of mankind in general corresponds to the ages of the individual between the 28th and the 21st year. This means that when the fifth post-Atlantean epoch began in 1413, mankind's evolution had reached the point when people felt their spirit-soul being's development to be dependent upon their bodily nature up to their 28th year. At that age the soul became independent. You will realize from this fact the necessity for man in this epoch to attain through conscious inner spiritual development what the soul no longer receives through its dependence on the physical-bodily nature. In this epoch man must attain insight out of his own individual being, he must be able freely and independently to grasp reality and carry this ability beyond the ages of 28, 27, 26 and so on. However, it has to be said that generally the present system of education, despite being a much discussed or perhaps I should better say fabled about subject, tends not to provide the individual with anything beyond what corresponds to mankind's present age of 27.

In the course of the fifth post-Atlantean epoch mankind's general age will drop to 26, then 25, etc. reaching 21 at the end of the epoch. So you see the necessity for science of the spirit, which will provide the soul with what it no longer receives through the body's development, and will support it in its independent development. At present we witness the phenomenon that, if their development does not go beyond what it can receive from the external world and ordinary history, people may live to be a hundred, but their age remains at 27. That means that whatever they express about their innermost views, observations, or ideals always bears the stamp of issuing from someone aged no more than 27.

I have concerned myself with the most varied personalities engaged in different branches of cultural and public life. I have indeed considered this aspect of research most thoroughly. I have attempted to discover what lies behind some of the more questionable phenomena that one meets with today. It has come to light that much of what is happening has its origin in the fact that people with influence in public life, no matter how old they are, act out of the mental disposition of a 27-year-old, in the sense I have described. Truly what I am about to say is not said out of bad feeling or animosity. The research into these things goes back to long before the war, as can be seen from my lectures.

I did research into a personality who is typical because as far as his soul disposition is concerned it must be said that, though he is considerably older externally, inwardly he is but 27 years old. In his activity in public life he proves himself a typical representative of such a personality. There are many examples to choose from, but let us take this more distant one through whom much has come about in our time: Woodrow Wilson, the President of the United States of America. I have taken great pains in investigating this man's soul disposition. He represents those human beings whose development gains nothing through the fact that man's soul has become free, has become independent of the bodily nature and should be self-reliant. In consequence their age remains the same as that of mankind, which at present is 27. It is really an untruth when such people claim to be 30, 40, 50 or more years old. As regards inner development they are no more than 27.

A friend of our movement who has suffered much through the events taking place at present heard the lecture I am now giving in Munich. He told me afterwards that this explanation of the peculiarity of present events was like a ray of light helping him to understand many phenomena. The abstract ideals of youth, the abstract discussions about freedom, indulging one's own pleasure while believing to have a world mission; all these things are characteristic of Woodrow Wilson.3NoteTextNoteNumWoodrow Wilson, 1856–1924, President of the United States from 1913-1921, professor of philosophy. Not developing beyond the age of 27 explains his unpractical views, his inability to discover fruitful ideas that relate to reality as a creative force, his wishing to express only views that please people, that are intelligible in general to people who do not want any ideas more mature than those coming from a 27-year-old—these are also things that are characteristic of Woodrow Wilson. To take an example: his ideas about peace, which have swept through the world, are so impractical that they have contributed to war for his own country. All these things are closely related but they have their origin in the facts I have indicated. Spiritual research discovers deeper truths of human evolution which are not comfortable to hear. This no doubt accounts for them being so little appreciated. People are not consciously aware that such truths can be disagreeable, but subconsciously they are, and they fear them. The fear is subconscious and because people do not allow it to rise into consciousness it turns into hate, into antipathy against the deeper truths. What today calls forth so much antipathy towards spiritual science is subconscious hatred, and especially subconscious fear of the deeper truths which indeed are not, let us say, so digestible as those phrases so loved today such as “The best man in the right place,” and the like. In the future man's ideas as well as his ideals must be far more definite, far more concrete; they must relate to reality, to facts as they are. I have spoken of this from the most varied standpoints. Ideas and ideals must spring from real knowledge, from true insight into the meaning and direction of man's evolution. Man's evolution will indeed not prosper as long as people refuse to base what is called “idealism” on direct spiritual investigation. Arbitrary notions will not provide ideals that have any connection with reality.

The sixth epoch will follow our own. As mankind's general age will then correspond to the ages of the individual between 21 and 14, it will mean that man's soul will become free and independent of his bodily nature at those earlier ages. Imagine what it will then be like if man's free and independent soul does not unite with knowledge derived from spiritual investigation. A person may then be 30, 40, 50 years old, but if he has not taken his own development in hand, his age will in fact be no more than 17, 16 or 15. The all-important aspect of mankind's further evolution consists in the fact that as the earth progresses more of man's development is left to the individual himself. What will happen if this is not recognized? What will happen is that people will suffer dementia praecox, insanity of adolescence. You will realize how necessary it is to know about the fundamental facts of earthly existence and to be conscious of the dangers that threaten mankind. At present there is plenty of courage shown in external action, a fact which is by no means always sufficiently appreciated. But man's further progress will need courage of soul, the courage which will enable him to face truths which at first appear disagreeable if one's first love in life is ease and comfort, if all one strives for is knowledge that one finds, as the saying is, “elevating,” i.e., one demands all truths to be pleasant ones. This is an attitude that is very widespread in our time. A dislike is taken to someone the moment he speaks about things that are uncomfortable, albeit necessary; one feels let down because he fails to uplift. But truth which has been recognized as such stands higher than words spoken merely because they deal with things that are pleasant and can be taken home to be enjoyed like a comforting beverage. The satisfaction derived from knowledge of life as it necessarily and truly is stands higher than that derived from ease and comfort.

These are things I wanted to say to help us understand our present age.