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The Rudolf Steiner Archive

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Earthly Knowledge and Heavenly Wisdom
GA 221

I. Self-Knowledge and Experiencing the Christ in Oneself

2 February 1923, Dornach

Animals participate in a certain way in an annual cycle: Butterflies and other insects are in their chrysalis stage in one season, hatch in another, and lay their eggs in still another. We can see a relationship between the changes in nature and the life cycle of insects; they adapt their lives to their natural environment. Similarly, in previous ages of earth evolution, human communities participated more or less instinctively in the life of outer nature. However, as human evolution advanced, the instincts that enabled people to participate in their immediate natural environment largely disappeared. In our more advanced stage we no longer find this kind of outer harmony between the natural surroundings and the individual human being. This is connected with our evolution, which constitutes our history and forms a unified whole extending over the long epochs of the earth's planetary evolution.

Let us look more closely at the lower animals, such as insects, because things are clearer and simpler there. These animals live out their lives in a relatively short period of time, for example, in a year. After that, the same processes are repeated in the following generations. In human evolution, there is a similar regular pattern for longer periods. For instance, we have found that, in ancient times, people had a kind of instinctive clairvoyance, a picture consciousness. This then faded in the middle period of human evolution with the transition from the ancient picture consciousness to the modern intellectual and conceptual consciousness. Our current historical period, which began with the first third of the fifteenth century, was a period of development of the consciousness soul; it was the age when humanity entered into intellectual thinking in the strict sense, and this led us for the first time to completely free self-awareness.

When we consider a long period of time from this perspective, we find a certain overall regularity in the whole of human evolution. This regularity is analogous to what we find in an insect's life in the course of a year.

Now, in ancient times, people still enjoyed a certain instinctive participation in the natural cycles of their environment. But these instincts have largely declined, and now conscious inner life must take the place of the old instinctive life. It must guide us, for if we left our lives completely to chance, without any inner guidelines or rules, and without ever deciding on a direction for our entire being—in other words, if we never found our inner bearings, but left our life here on earth entirely under the sway of chance—then, even though our soul life is more developed than that of animals, we would sink below the animal level.

For example, insects have a certain orientation in their life in spring, summer, fall, and winter. They are not dominated by the accidents of the process of becoming, but are integrated into the world through the regularity of the sequence of their various life phases. We left behind the ancient instinctive participation in nature, which, even though it was instinctive, was still more a matter of soul than that of the animals. In its place, we have taken on a newer, more conscious form of participation. However, despite our higher soul- and thought-life, with the decline of our instincts we have entered a more chaotic existence and have thereby sunk in a certain way below the animal level.

No matter how much we stress our superiority to the animal kingdom and the progress we have made in our evolution, we have to admit that we have lost our inner sense of direction for our lives. As members of the human race, we have to find this inner sense of direction in the awareness that we belong to this or that century, which, in turn, has a special place in the total evolution of our planet, just as the month of September has a special place in the course of the year. In other words, we have to become aware of how our soul life will enter into our particular historical epoch.

This is something we still have to work on by entering more and more deeply into the development of the consciousness soul. We have to be conscious that we live in this or that epoch and are not fully human if we leave our life to chance, or karma, which has placed us into our earthly existence at birth. We are fully human, in the true sense of the word, only if we take into account what the historical evolution of humanity demands of our soul life in the epoch in which we live. Animals live in accordance with the course of the year. Human beings, on the other hand, have to learn to live in accordance with a historical epoch.

We have said that the Mystery of Golgotha is the most important event in the history of the earth, and we have often talked about what it means to have lived before the Mystery of Golgotha or at a certain time after it. Indeed, the Mystery of Golgotha is the pivotal point in history, and we can calculate forward and backward in time from this supreme historical event. However, to calculate time properly on this basis, we have to know, in each historical epoch, the task of our soul in that period.

What is usually called history these days cannot help us develop such an awareness for any given epoch. A mere account of how the Persian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Greek, or Roman culture developed does not tell us anything about how to integrate ourselves harmoniously into the historical development of our planet—the way animals are integrated into the course of the year.

We have already studied various historical epochs to develop an idea of what we need to bring to life in our soul in our era. Life is rich and varied, and if we want to understand the reality of human life on earth fully, we must look at it again and again from different points of view. Today, I would like to discuss an aspect of human life that can show us the particular nature of our soul life in our present age.

In very ancient times of human evolution, we find scattered throughout the various inhabited regions of the earth what we have come to know as the Mysteries. The human communities living then developed under the influence of these Mysteries not only in their outer lives, but also psychically and culturally. Depending on their level of maturity, some individuals were taken into the Mysteries and went through a development that brought them to a certain stage of knowing, feeling, and willing. As bearers of such higher faculties, these individuals then rejoined their communities and gave others guidelines for solving life's problems, for inner strength and invigoration of their souls, and for their outer willing and doing. Therefore, we can best study these guidelines for ancient epochs when we look at how they were taught by those who had experienced the Mysteries.

The pupils of the Mysteries had to get to know their surroundings, most importantly the beings in the so-called three kingdoms of nature. The teaching was similar to what we have today, except, as you know, the approach was not as abstract and intellectual as ours. Nowadays, children learn already in first grade to understand the three kingdoms of nature through all kinds of concepts and representations. We come to know the mineral, plant, and animal kingdoms through concepts and ideas, and then try to understand ourselves and our lives. The concepts of the pupils in those ancient Mysteries were not acquired or arrived at in their inner soul-life through logic, observation, and so on, as ours are. Instead, they had to undergo a soul development that enabled them to get a clear picture of the mineral, plant, and animal kingdoms. Thus, people then did not have the abstract concepts we have now; they had images or pictures that would probably seem extravagant and weird to modern intellectual people. They knew through direct experience that what they learned from these images, what they experienced in them, told them something about what was in the minerals, plants, and animals themselves—something that grew in them, manifested and unfolded in them—and they learned from these images.

People in ancient times saw something true to reality where people now see only strange and fantastic myths. In ancient times, people knew that when they looked at an animal in the physical, sensory world, it had a clearly defined outline. However, they were not interested in such definite outlines; rather, they wanted to understand the life that moved everywhere in a flowing stream. They felt this was not possible in sharply defined pictures or concepts but only in liquid, changing, metamorphosing images. This is how things were presented to them in the Mysteries.

However, when the pupils had to advance to self-knowledge on the basis of this Mystery wisdom, they went through a significant crisis in their souls. They had received images of the mineral, plant, and animal realms in the form appropriate to their time. With their dreamlike consciousness, they could also look into the interior of the kingdoms of nature. However, when they received directions from the Mysteries to "know themselves"—which were similar to those given in later times—they had to advance from imaginative knowledge of nature to self-knowledge, they had to go through a crisis in their souls.

Now let me describe this inner crisis. People had filled their soul life by looking at the being of the mineral kingdom spread out before them; they had within themselves the effects of mineral-physical processes. They also had within themselves images of the manifold, interwoven life of plants and animals. They could integrate all three into one mineral-plant-animal world. Then, on the basis of this, they could look inside themselves, and there they found an inner picture of the mineral, plant, and animal kingdoms as well as an inner picture of their working together.

When these people then began carrying out the command, "Know yourself," they were suddenly stopped short by the realization that although they had a manifold picture-world of what lives on the earth apart from human beings—a picture- world rich in forms and colors, inwardly sounding, even musical—yet, this manifold, constantly changing world of many forms and shimmering, radiant, glittering colors and sounds of music was of no help to them in trying to know themselves. They tried to understand themselves in a similar pictorial way, but were unable to do so. True, they could arrive at images of the human being, but they knew from the way they experienced these pictures that they did not represent the true human being. People's experience of these images was different from what they experienced when they felt their own human dignity. They realized the images did not truly represent these feelings.

This crisis of helplessness in achieving self-knowledge led to another experience; that is, people developed a certain fundamental conviction or philosophy of life we can find at the basis of all ancient civilizations. This conviction is the realization of truly enlightened people that here on earth, where minerals, plants, and animals fulfill their intended purpose and reveal their true being in the pictures people have of them, human beings do not reveal their true being.

The philosophy of life fundamental to all ancient civilizations was that human beings do not belong to the earth in the same way as the creatures of the other kingdoms of nature. The real home of our true essence is not on earth but elsewhere, in the supersensible world. This conviction was not unfounded; people arrived at it through a crisis in their soul lives after they had learned everything about nonhuman life on earth that was appropriate for their times. In fact, this inner crisis could be resolved only because people in ancient times were still able to look at pre-earthly life and also at post-earthly life, at life after death.

In a way, every person with functional instincts was aware of a pre-earthly life, which was present throughout earthly life as a pre-earthly memory. On the basis of this pre-earthly life, people then gained knowledge about life after death in the way I described in the so-called French Course.1This so-called French Course has been preserved in the following two books: Rudolf Steiner, Philosophy, Cosmology and Religion, vol. 215 in the Collected Works (Spring Valley, NY: Anthroposophic Press, 1984) and Cosmology, Religion and Philosophy, vol. 25 in the Collected Works (New York: Anthroposophic Press, 1943). The latter contains summaries of the lectures contained in the former. Rudolf Steiner prepared these summaries for the French translator of his lectures. Based on their ancient faculties, people knew that only after death would they be able to see not only the essence of nature but also their own essence. In those ancient times, people had only the above-mentioned picture consciousness in the life between birth and death, but not yet an intellectual consciousness like ours. They developed this intellectual consciousness only after death, and then they retained it.

This is the strange thing about the progress of human evolution: in ancient times, people developed intellectual consciousness only after they had died, at the time when we nowadays review our life in images, that is, during the first three days after death. During life on earth, those ancient people had a dreamlike picture-consciousness, while we have our intellectual consciousness. They grew only gradually into the intellectual life after death when they were liberated from their bodies. This intellectual life could then give them freedom. In ancient times, people became free and intellectual beings only after death.

After the candidates of the Mysteries were initiated into these truths, they could be taught—based on the knowledge about the human being available at that time—that in this earthly life their picture consciousness could teach them only about the nonhuman world. If they looked at themselves to try to gain self-knowledge, they would fail because they could not perceive themselves in their full human dignity. They had to understand that they would be truly human only after they had passed through the gate of death. Then they would have pure thinking, which would help them become free beings.

Interestingly enough, we have the type of consciousness people in ancient times had only after death—in a sense, this consciousness moved in the opposite direction to human life, namely, from life after death to the one on earth. Our advances in evolution, particularly our achievements since the first third of the fifteenth century, have shifted from our life after death into our earthly life. In other words, the true human essence, which the pupils of the Mysteries could only find in the supersensible life after death, has entered into our earthly life.

A true supersensible stream has entered our life on earth, because it did not move with us from "before" death to "after" death, but in the opposite direction. We have been blessed with something supersensible, and consequently we have taken on the task to become worthy of this supersensible element in our sensory existence. In short, we must gain our inner freedom and acknowledge the supersensible consciously as part of the development of our consciousness soul.

It is indeed true that even though in earlier times people were challenged to know themselves, the answer they found was that self-knowledge is impossible during life on earth because the true human essence does not fully unfold in this life. They had to realize that they were not truly human beings until they entered the supersensible world after death.

At the time of the Mystery of Golgotha, and even in later centuries, people called the human being living on earth "the natural man," following the ancient Mystery wisdom. They believed "the natural man" was not truly and fully human and did not bear the true human essence within himself. They differentiated between this natural human being and the pneumatic or spiritual human being and believed that a person was a true human being only after death, after laying aside the physical body and becoming a pneumatic being.

That is why initiation into the Mysteries in ancient times was closely connected with the development of humility regarding human consciousness on earth. Initiation did not make people arrogant and proud because it did not give them the feeling that they were fully human in the true sense of the word. Instead, pupils were made to feel that they were merely candidates for true humanity, and that they had to use their earthly life wisely in order to become fully human after death.

According to this Mystery wisdom, then, people living on earth were not considered a true expression of full humanity. Thanks to their intellectuality and freedom, the ancient Greeks and the civilizations under their influence eventually sensed that the true human essence was streaming from the life after death into human beings on earth. According to the point of view prevailing in ancient Greece, individual persons did not represent the full unfolding of the human essence, but they made visible, so to speak, the work of the stream from the supersensible. People then saw the streaming in of the supra-earthly into the earthly realm in a person's whole physiognomy, way of acting, and overall figure, and they revered it.

All this changed in the more recent phase of human evolution; now we have the noble task of becoming aware of our humanity. Our task on earth is to represent the true human essence as fully as possible. We, too, are faced with the challenge to know ourselves. Because of our intellectual consciousness, we can take hold of the inner force of pure thinking and the inner soul condition of freedom in the process of self-knowledge. We can behold the human being with our soul's eye, so to speak. However, being able to know ourselves to a certain extent should not make us arrogant. We have to be aware at every moment that we have to struggle for our true freedom. We have to be aware that in our passions and emotions, in our feelings and sentiments, we are dependent on the subhuman.

People in ancient times could perceive this subhuman realm vividly in their picture consciousness. In fact, in those times people greatly appreciated the significance of the subhuman for their knowledge. They believed that the true human being was not to be found on earth because, as an intellectual being, this true human being would have had to be understood with intellectual cognition. Only the subhuman realm can be perceived with the nonintellectual, pictorial consciousness. Only when intellectual capacities—which live in a free inner soul condition as I described in The Philosophy of Freedom—are developed into conscious and exact clairvoyance will self-knowledge be possible also in regard to the other parts of our being, apart from pure intellectual thinking and the free impulses of willing.2Rudolf Steiner, The Philosophy of Freedom: A Philosophy of Spiritual Activity, vol. 4 in the Collected Works (London: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1988).

Through such a higher consciousness—an imaginative, inspired, and intuitive consciousness—we can see ourselves apart from the intellect as members of the supersensible world. Then we realize that although we are fully human—as our self-knowledge shows us—our full humanity demands that we continuously perfect our humanity. That is why we cannot develop the kind of humility people had to have in ancient civilizations. Their humility grew out of the realization that during life in the physical body people were not fully human, were not fully unfolding their human dignity and value, but were only on the way to becoming true human beings. During life on earth, they could only prepare themselves for the consciousness and freedom they were to have immediately after death.

Having gone through the intermediary stage of Greek civilization in earlier incarnations, we modern people must take care not to forget to be fully human in our physical body between birth and death. For it is granted to us to work out inwardly what has entered our earthly life from our pre-earthly existence. We can become fully human on earth, and therefore we must take on that difficult task.

This change is expressed in the development of our religious consciousness. In our last talk, we heard that in ancient times people mostly worshiped God the Father and saw Christ as the Son of God. They perceived God the Father in the substance-creating and guiding forces of the supersensible world, of which the sensory world on earth is only a pale reflection. They looked up to the cosmos and worshiped God the Father.

The candidates for initiation into the Mysteries were always aware that the greatest knowledge about the human being they could acquire was a preparation for life after death. Then, through the Mystery of Golgotha, the Son of God united Himself with earthly life, and since then human beings can develop the consciousness of St. Paul: "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me." (Gal. 2:20) When we allow Christ to come alive in us, and orient our inner activity so that the purpose and life of Christ flows and breathes through us, then we can begin to sense the stream that has come to us from our pre-earthly life and take it into ourselves during this life on earth. The first, elementary sign of taking this stream into ourselves is to say to ourselves: At a certain point in life, we begin to feel something livening up and bursting forth within us, something that until then existed beneath the threshold of our consciousness. It is only now that we notice its existence. Now it rises up! It fills us with inner light that is also inner warmth. And because this inner life, this inner warmth, this inner light, has arisen within us only in the course of our life after birth, we now know more about earthly life than we did by nature. We come to know something during our earthly life that arises from our humanness.

When we feel this rising light and life and the love rising up within us, and identify them as Christ living and working in us, then we become inwardly strengthened to understand in our free soul the life after death as the fully human one. Thus, the Mystery of Golgotha and the Christ-Impulse are intimately connected with our attainment of a consciousness of freedom, a consciousness that can also fill our thinking with inner life and inner warmth, thus keeping it from becoming abstract and dead. This shows clearly the full significance and importance of Christ within us. We need to see this in connection with the demand made on all people at all times, even today: "Know yourself. Fructify your inner being to become fully human."

Here you can see the difference between what has to live in our soul and what was needed in former times. In fact, we can look at human beings over a large span of time in the same way we do at insects. As animals live integrated into the course of the year, so we should live within the history of our planet earth. We have to realize that, just as there is a springtime for the insects, so there once was a time when we had an ancient, instinctive clairvoyance accompanied by unfreedom and an imaginative consciousness. We were then unable to know ourselves. Instead, there was the awareness that we would not be fully human until after we had passed through the portal of death. And then, just as there are summer and fall for the insects, so for us there was the epoch of Greek antiquity. That was the transition to our period, where the task for our soul is to fulfill, in a certain sense, the command "Know yourself" here on earth. As a result, our soul will achieve a higher stage of development after death than people were able to reach in ancient times when they became fully human only after death.

In those ancient times, human beings had the task of being candidates for becoming fully human while here on earth. We now have the task of becoming fully human already here on earth so that we can reach higher stages of development after death. If people in ancient times did not live their lives on earth properly, they were in danger of not attaining full humanity. We modern people face a different problem. If we do not achieve full humanity here on earth, we, in fact, repudiate it and condemn ourselves to descending further into the subhuman realm after death. If people in ancient times did not become candidates for full humanity, they simply had left something undone. However, if we do not strive to become fully human on earth, we destroy something for all of humanity, because we then repudiate humanness; people in ancient times merely missed it.

This is how we have to think at our higher stage of development if we want to live consciously in the world similarly to how animals, on a lower level, live in their world—instinctively. Otherwise we fall prey to chaos, something that cannot happen to animals because of their instincts.

We have to learn from anthroposophy to be really human so that we do not experience the disgrace of being less than the animals although the gods have destined us for something higher. After all, animals cannot fail to participate in the harmony of the universe; however, if we do not want to think as I have indicated and to bring the right consciousness to bear at the right times, then we turn the cosmic harmony into something dissonant and, so to speak, fall into cosmic disgrace.

We must learn to unite our feeling life with our intellectual life. We must become aware that it can be a disgrace not to strive for the kind of insight that makes us fully human—a disgrace in the eyes of the gods.