The History and Actuality of Imperialism
by Rudolf Steiner
Lecture one of three, Dornach, Switzerland – February 20 1920
Unabridged translation by Frank Thomas Smith
Today's lecture will be episodic, a kind of interspersion into our considerations, because I would like our English friends, who will soon be going home, to be able to take as much as possible with them. Therefore I will structure this lecture in a way to be as effective as possible. Today I would like, at first historically, not so much referring to the present – that can be done tomorrow perhaps – I would like to say something about imperialism, historically, but in a spiritual-scientific sense.
Imperialism is a much discussed phenomenon recently, and discussed by those who are more or less conscious of its relationship to the total phenomena of the present time. But when such things are discussed, what is not taken into account, or at least not enough, is that we live within the historical course of events, that we stand in a very definitive historical evolutionary epoch and that we can only understand this evolutionary epoch if we know where the phenomena which surround us, in which we live, come from.
Basically, what is most effective today and what will show itself to be an even more effective imperialism in the future will be its bearer – the Anglo-American people. As far as its name is concerned, it has shown itself to be something new: economic imperialism. But most important is the fact that everything said about this economic imperialism is untrue, everything, I would say, seems to be hanging in the air, which more or less consciously leads to untruthfulness. So in order to recognize how in these times realities are completely different from what is said about them, a more profound observation of the historical course of events is necessary.
I only need to mention one item of present-day phenomena in order to characterize the public's ability to judge. We have experienced how at first in various parts of Europe and finally even in Germany, Woodrow Wilson has been glorified. Our Swiss friends know very well that while Woodrow Wilson was being glorified I always spoke out against him in the sharpest terms here in Switzerland, for what Woodrow Wilson is today, he was of course also then when he was being glorified by the whole word. (It is already being reported – although I can't say if it's the complete truth – that in America they are thinking of declaring him unfit to govern, that there are doubts about his judgment.) The public's capacity for judgment, as it zips around the world today, is sufficiently characterized by such things.
And one must only remember a second thing. During the last four of five years, an enormous amount of pretty things have been talked about: the self-determination of peoples and so forth. All these things were not true, for what was behind them was something completely different, it was of course a question of power. And in order to understand what it's about, what is said, thought and judged, it is necessary to return to the realities. And when things such as imperialism are considered – “Imperial Federation League” is the official designation in England since the beginning of the twentieth century – we must realize that they are the recent products of an evolution and they go back to a remote past, and can only be explained by a true consideration of history.
We do not want to delve so deeply into the past as we could when studying the spiritual evolution of humanity, but we do want to go at least as far back as several centuries before the Christian era. We find imperialistic empires in Asia, and a subspecies of such empires in Egypt. Most characteristic of the Asiatic impulse are, for example, the historically known Persian empire and, especially, the Assyrian empire. But it is not sufficient to study this first phase of imperialism only in the last, historically known stage of the Assyrian empire, simply because the motivators dominating the Assyrian empire cannot be understood without reaching back to even earlier oriental conditions. Even in China, whose whole organization reaches so far back, the organization of recent times has changed so much that the true character of an oriental imperialism as it once existed is not recognized. However, the conditions which are known historically make it possible to see what the fundamentals are.
We cannot understand the old oriental imperialism without knowing the conscious relationship between people of a region, let's say an empire, and what we today would call the ruler or the rulers of that empire. Because of course our words for ruler or king and so forth no longer express the feelings about the ruler or the rulers. It is very difficult to understand the feelings of people in general of the third to fourth century before the Christian era because it is difficult nowadays to take account of how people felt in those ancient times about the relation of the physical world to the spiritual world. Today most people think, if they even think about a spiritual world, that it is somewhere in the distant beyond. And when the spiritual world is spoken about – and in the future it will again have to be spoken about as being present among us just as the sense world is – then what results is what has led for example to the Protestant mentality. But the essential nature of ancient times is that no distinction was made between the physical and spiritual worlds.
This is so much the case that when ancient times are referred to by people of today they can hardly imagine much consistency, for the way of thinking was so different then from what it is today. Rulers, a ruling caste, slaves, ruled people, that was reality – not something called a physical reality, but it was the reality, simultaneously the physical and the spiritual reality. And the ruler of an oriental empire – what was he? The ruler of the oriental empire was God. And for the people of those times there was no God beyond the clouds, no choir of spirits who surrounded the highest God – that view came later – but rather what we today call ministers or court jesters, somewhat disrespectfully, were beings of a divine nature. For it was obvious that because of the mystery schooling they had gone through, they had become something greater than ordinary people. They were looked up to, just as the Protestant mentality looks up to its God or certain more liberal circles look up to their invisible angels and such. Extra invisible angels or an extra super-sensible invisible God did not exist for the people of the ancient orient. Everything spiritual lived in man. In the common man lived a human soul. In those whom we would today call rulers, lived a divine soul, a God.
The concept of a really existing godly empire, which at the same time was a physical empire, is no longer taken into consideration. That a king has real divine power and dignity is considered absurd today, but was a reality in oriental imperialism.
As I mentioned, a subspecies was found in Egypt, for there we find a true transition to a later form. If we go back to the oldest form of imperialism, we find it based on the king being God who really physically appeared on earth, the son of heaven who physically appeared on earth, who was even the father of heaven. This is so paradoxical for the contemporary mind, that it seems unbelievable, but it is so. We can learn from Assyrian documents how conquests were justified. They were simply carried out. The justification was that they had to expand more and more the God's empire. When a territory was conquered and the inhabitants became subjects, then they had to worship the conqueror as their god. During those times no one thought of spreading a certain worldview. Why would it have been necessary? When the conquered people openly recognized the conqueror, followed him, then all was in order, they could believe whatever they wanted. Belief – personal opinion – wasn't touched in ancient times, nobody cared about it.
That was the first form in which imperialism appeared. The second form was when the ruler, the one who was to play a leading role, wasn't the god himself, but the god's envoy, or inspired by the god, interpenetrated with divinity.
The first imperialism is characterized by realities. When an oriental ruler of ancient times appeared before his people, it was in all his splendor, because as a god he was entitled to wear such clothes. It was the clothing of a god. That's what a god looked like. It meant nothing more than what the ruler wore was the fashion of the gods. And his paladins were not mere bureaucrats, but higher beings who accompanied him and did what they did with the power of higher beings.
Then came the time, as already mentioned, when the ruler and his paladins appeared as God's envoys, as interpenetrated with divinity, as representatives. That is very clear in Dionysus the Areopagite. Read his writings, where he describes the complete hierarchy, from the deacons, archdeacons, bishops, archbishops, up to the church's whole hierarchy. How does he do this? Dionysus the Areopagite presents it as though in this earthly churchly hierarchy is mirrored what God is with his archangels and angles, super-sensibly of course. So above we have the heavenly hierarchy and below it's mirror image, the worldly hierarchy. The people of the worldly hierarchy, the deacons, archdeacons, wear certain clothes, and they perform their rituals; they are symbols. The first phase was characterized by realities, the second phase was characterized by signs, by symbols. But this has been more or less forgotten. Even Catholics understand little of the fact that the deacons, priests, bishops, archbishops are the representatives of the heavenly hierarchies. This has been mostly forgotten.
With the advancement of imperialism a division occurred, a real division. On one hand there were the leaders tending more towards being divine representatives, priestly, where the priests were kings; on the other hand the tendency towards the secular, although still by the grace of God. Basically these were the two forms: the churches and the empires.
During the first imperialism, when all was physical reality, something like this would have been unthinkable. But in the second phase of imperialism the division occurred. On one side more secular, but nevertheless representative of God, on the other side more church oriented, also representative of God. That system held until the middle ages and, I would even say, until the year 1806, but more as a shadow, retained in kings and paladins as God's representatives. The Roman Catholic Church's propagation tended more towards the priestly. But where this phenomenon of God's representative or envoy, which held through the entire middle ages, was most strongly maintained was in the so-called Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, which finally disappeared in 1806. In “Holy” you have a whiff of what was divine during the ancient times on earth; “Roman” indicates the provenance, where it came from; “German Nation” was what it covered, the more secular element.
Therefore in the second phase of imperialism we no longer merely have the Church's anointed imperialism, but we have the tangled web of the divine and the secular anointed in the empires. That already began in the old Roman Empire during pre-Christian times and extended into the late Middle Ages. But this imperial Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation always had a double character. Remember that it goes back to Karl the Great [Charlemagne]. But Karl the Great was crowned by the Pope in Rome. Therewith royal dignity became a symbol, so that what existed here on the physical earth was no longer reality. The people of the Middle Ages did not worship Karl the Great and Otto I as gods, which was the case in more ancient times, but they saw in them godly representatives. And that had to be continually confirmed, for of course it became ever weaker in consciousness. But it still retained a symbolic reality, a reality of signs. These emperors of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation went to Rome in order for the Pope to crown them. Istwan I was also crowned king of Hungary by the Pope in the year 1000. The anointment, and therefor the power, was bestowed on the world's rulers by the clergy.
It was also thought that there was justification for other peoples being incorporated into the empire. Even Dante thought that the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire was justified in ruling the whole world. So the formula for imperialism is even to be found in Dante.
In fables and other lore where the events of history are crystallized in human consciousness, things are expressed from various viewpoints, not just one. We could say that in the eleventh and twelfth centuries in Europe the consciousness existed – not a clear one, more like a feeling – that once in ancient times in the Orient men lived on the physical earth who were themselves gods. They didn't think it was a superstition, oh no, rather they thought that such gods could no longer live on the earth because the earth had become so bad. That's been lost, what made men gods, the “Holy Grail” has been lost and now, in Central Europe, it can only be found in the way Percival found it: one seeks the way to find god within, whereas earlier god was a reality in the empire. Now the empire is merely a sum of symbols, of signs, and one must find the spirit in the symbols.
Of all the things which once existed, only remnants remain. Reality is deadened. Remnants remain, remnants of the most diverse kind. Generally, as long as things are real, definite, they later become ambiguous. And thus in Europe diversity grew from clear reality. As long as the Holy Roman Empire had meaning in human consciousness, the representative of the empire was powerful and competent enough to subdue the individual angel-symbols, the local princes, for that consciousness included the emperor's right to do so. But his right rested more or less on something ideal, which more and more lost its meaning, and the local princes remained. So we have in the Holy Roman Empire something which gradually had its inner substance squeezed out until only the exterior remained. The consciousness that earthly men were representatives of God was lost. And the expression for the fact that people no longer believed that certain individuals were representatives of God is Protestantism – protest against the idea of men as representatives of God.
If the principle of Protestantism had rigorously penetrated, no prince could have been crowned “by the Grace of God” again. But such things remained as remnants. These remnants remained until 1918, then they disappeared. These remnants, which had already lost all inner meaning, remained as outer appearances until then. The local German princes were the outer appearances; they only had meaning in those ancient times when they were symbols for an inspirational kingdom of heaven.
Other remnants remained. Not so long ago a pastoral letter was written by a Central-European bishop – perhaps he was an Archbishop. In that pastoral letter he more or less claimed that the catholic priest is more powerful than Jesus Christ for the simple reason that when the Catholic priest performs the transsubstantiation at the altar, Jesus Christ must be present in the Sanctissimum, in the Host. The transsubstantiation must really take place through the priest's power. It means that the action performed by the priest forces the Christ Jesus to be present on the altar. Therefore the more powerful is not the Christ Jesus, but he who performs the transsubstantiation at the altar!
If we wish to understand such a thing which, as I said, appeared in a pastoral letter a few years ago, we must go back, not to the times of the second imperialism, but to the times of the first imperialism, many elements of which are retained in the Catholic Church and its institutions. Therein lies the remnant of the consciousness that those who rule on the earth are the gods, whereas the Christ Jesus is only the son of God. What was written in that pastoral letter is of course an impossibility for the Protestant mentality, just as for today it is almost impossible to believe that thousands of years ago people actually saw the ruler as God. But these are all real historical factors, real facts which played a role historically and are still present today.
This earlier realities play strongly into later events. Just look at how Mohammedanism [Islam] has spread. Certainly Mohammed never said: Mohammed is your God – as it would have been said thousands of yours earlier by an oriental ruler. He limited himself to what corresponded more to the times: There is a God , and Mohammed is his prophet. In people's consciousness he was God's representative – the second phase of imperialism. The manner in which Islam spread, however, corresponded to the first phase. For Muslims have never been intolerant towards other beliefs the way some others were. The Muslims were content to defeat the others and make them their subjects, just as it was in older times when a profession of faith was not not required, for it was a matter of indifference what they believed if they just recognized God.
And something also remained of the first phase of imperialism – strongly influenced by the second – in Russian despotism, in tsarism. The way in which he was recognized by his subjects goes back, at least partially, to the first phase of imperialism. It was not so much a question of what was in the consciousness of the Russian people, for the rulership of the tzars rested on the Germanic and the Mongolian elements rather than that of the Russian peasantry itself.
Now we come to the third phase of imperialism. It has been formulated since the beginning of the twentieth century, since Chamberlain and his people coined the expression “Imperial Federation League”, but the causes go back to the second half of the seventeenth century, when that great upheaval occurred in England as a result of which everywhere in the west that the Anglo-American people lived, the king, who earlier had been God, then an anointed one, became a kind of mere shadow – one cannot say a decoration exactly, but rather something more tolerated than taken seriously.
The English speaking peoples bring other preconditions to what we may call the people's will, the voting system, than, say, the French – the Latin peoples in general. The Latin peoples, especially the French, certainly carried out the revolution of the eighteenth century, but the French people today are more royal than any other. To be royal doesn't only mean to have a king at the top. Naturally a person whose head has been cut off cannot run around; but the French as a people are royal, imperialistic, without having a king. It has to do with the mood of soul. This “all are one” feeling, the national consciousness, is a real remnant of the Louis IV mentality.
But the English-speaking peoples brought other preconditions to what we may call the people's will. And little by little this became what the elected parliaments decided, and thus the third form of imperialism developed, which was formulated by Chamberlain and others. But today we want to consider this third imperialism psychologically.
The first imperialism had realities: One person was the God for the mentality of the other people. His paladins were the gods who surrounded him, sub-gods. The second form of imperialism: What was on the earth was the sign, the symbol. God acted within men. Third form of imperialism: Just as the previous evolution was from realities to signs and symbols, now the development is from symbols to platitudes.
This is an objective description of the facts, without being emotionally tinged. Since the seventeenth century what has been called the will of the people in the public life of the Anglo-American peoples in the law books – of course categorized according to classes – is no more than platitudes. Between what is said and reality there is not even the relation which existed between the symbol and reality. So the psychological path is this: from reality to symbol and then to platitudes – to words which have been squeezed out, dried out, empty words. This is the reality of the third imperialism: squeezed out, empty words. And nobody imagines that they are divine, at least not where they originated.
Just think about the basis of that imperialism, the ruling elements of which are platitudes: during the first imperialism the kings, in the second imperialism the anointed, now the platitudes. From majority decisions of course nothing real results, only a dominant platitude. The reality remains hidden. And now we come to an important factor upon which reality is based: the colonization system. Colonization played an important role in the development of this third imperialism. The “Imperial Federation League” summarizes the means of spreading imperialism to the colonies. But how do the colonies become part of the empire? Think back on real cases. Adventurers who no longer rightly fit into the empire, who are a somewhat down at heel, go to the colonies, become rich, then spend their riches at home, but that doesn't make them respectable, they are still adventurers, bohemians. That's how the colonial empire is created. That is the reality behind the platitudes. But remnants remain. Just as symbols and platitudes remain as remnants of the original realities, or symbolic crowns on princes and tzars, also from the enterprises of the somewhat foul smelling colonists, realities remain. The adventurer's son is not so foul smelling, right? He already smells better. The grandson smells even better and a time comes when everything smells very good. The platitudes are now possessed by what smells good. The platitudes are now identified with the true reality. Now the state can spread its wings, it becomes the protector and everything has been made honest.
It is necessary to call things by their real names – although the names seldom describe the reality. It's necessary because only thus can we understand what tasks and what responsibilities confront humanity in these times. Only in this way is it possible to realize what a fable convenue so called history really is, meaning that history which is taught in the schools and universities. That history does not call things by their real names. On the contrary, its effect is that the names describe what is false.
What I have just described is something terrible, isn't it. But you see, it's a question of guiding the feelings towards responsibilities. Let's now consider the other side. Let's consider such an ancient empire. In people's minds it was an earthly reality; the priest-king came from the mysteries. The second was no longer earthly reality, it was symbolic. It is a long way from the godly jewelry the rulers and their paladins in the ancient oriental empires wore and the “Roter Adler” [Red Eagle] medals hung around people's necks long afterward. But that's how things evolved. It went from From reality to nothing, not even a sign or symbol, but basically the expression of the platitude. Finally this platitude system, which has spread from the west to the rest of the world, has penetrated public affairs. I have even met court councilors – who anyway have little counseling to do – but what about the titular court councilors? Just an platitude hung on certain people and everything remains as before.
Whereas in the first phase the physical reality was thought to be spiritual, in the future this physical reality may no longer be thought of as spiritual. Nevertheless, the spiritual must be present here in the physical world. That means that spiritual reality must exist alongside physical reality. The human being must move around here within the physical reality, and recognize a spiritual reality, must speak of it as something real, super-sensible, invisible, but which exists, which must be established among us.
I have spoken about something quite terrible: about the platitude. But if the world had not become so platitude oriented, there would be no room for the introduction of a spiritual empire. Precisely because everything old has now become empty platitudes, an space has come into being in which the spiritual empire can enter. Especially in the west, in the Anglo-American world people will continue to speak in the usual terminology, things that come from the past. It will continue to roll on like a bowling ball. It will roll on in the words. You can find innumerable expressions especially in the west which have lost all meaning, but are still used. But not only in these expressions, but in everything described by the old words the platitude lives, in which there is no reality, for it has been squeezed out. That is where the spiritual, which has nothing of the old in it, can find room. The old must first become platitude, everything that continues to roll on in speech thrown overboard, and something completely new must enter, which can only propagate as a world of the spirit.
Only then can there be a kingdom of Christ on earth. For in that empire a reality must exist: “My kingdom is not of this world.” In the kingdom of this world, in which the kingdom of Christ will propagate, there will exist much that had not became platitude. But in the western world, everything originating in ancient times is destined to become platitude. Yes, in the west, in the Anglo-American world, all human tradition will become platitude. Therefore the responsibility exists to fill the empty vessel with spirit, about which can be said: “This kingdom is not of this world!” That is the great responsibility. It's not important how something came about, but what we do with what has come about. That is the situation.
Tomorrow we will speak about what can be done, for under the surface, especially in the western countries, the secret societies are most active, trying to insert the second phase of imperialism into the third. For in the Anglo-American people you have two imperialisms pushed together, the economic one of a Chamberlain and the symbolic imperialism of the secret societies, which play a very effective role, but which are kept secret from the people.
Continued in the next issue of SCR