The Destiny of Humanity and the Evolution of the World

by Rudolf Steiner

Lecture 1

Oslo, Norway, May 16, 1923 – (GA 226)

Translator unknown (somewhat revised here)

In the course of this lecture cycle, I should like to set forth several things connected in the most intensive way with the being of man, the formation of man's destiny, and what might be called the relationship of man in his entirety to world-evolution. I shall proceed immediately to the center of this matter by pointing out that the whole evolution of man's life on earth is connected not only with what we observe with our ordinary waking consciousness but also intensively with what takes place during sleep, from the time of falling asleep until awakening.

Doubtless earthly culture, civilization, derives its significance primarily from what man is able to think, feel and accomplish out of his waking state. Man, however, would be utterly powerless, in an external sense, unless his human forces were continuously renewed in the period between falling asleep and awakening by contact with the spiritual world. Our spirit and soul or, as we usually call it in Anthroposophy, our I and our astral body, withdraw from the physical and etheric body when man falls asleep; they enter the spiritual world, permeating the physical and etheric bodies again only after awakening. Thus, if leading a normal life, we spend one third of our earthly existence sleeping.

If we look back on our earth-life, we leave out of this conscious retrospection all that we experience between falling asleep and awakening. We skip all the things contributed by the divine worlds to our earth-life. And we take into account only what is given us by earthly experiences. If we wish to attain correct conceptions of our experiences between falling asleep and awakening, we should not spurn ideas which diverge from those of ordinary life. It would be naive to assume that the same things occur in the divine-spiritual worlds that occur in the physical-sensory worlds where we dwell between awaking and falling asleep. For, on falling asleep, we return to the spiritual worlds — and there things are quite different from things in the physical-sensory world. All this must be taken into account most decidedly by anyone wishing to form a conception of humanity's super-sensible destiny.

In religious documents we find many strange allusions which can be understood only by means of spiritual science. Thus a passage occurs in the Bible which, although known to everybody, is generally too little regarded: unless ye become as little children, ye may not enter the kingdom of God.

Often such passages are interpreted most trivially; nonetheless, they are always intended to convey an extraordinarily deep meaning.

The knowledge from which a conception of the spiritual, supersensible world has often been called by me, as well as by others, initiation science. We speak of this initiation science when we look back at what occurred in the ancient Mysteries. Yet we also speak of initiation science — modern initiation science — if we wish to characterize Anthroposophy in its deeper aspects.

Initiation science points to the knowledge of primeval conditions, original conditions. We seek to acquire knowledge concerning what existed in the beginning, which marked the starting-point. All these endeavors are connected with a matter of yet greater profundity which presently will be envisaged by our souls.

If we fell asleep on May 16, 1923, and have slept until May 17, 1923, we assume that this time has been spent by us in the same way as by a person who happens to stay awake and roam all night long through the streets of some city. We picture to ourselves the experiences of our spirit and soul (ego and astral body) during the night as though similar to the experiences — although in a somewhat different state — of a reveler seeking nightly adventures.

Things, however, are not as they seem to us. One must consider that on falling asleep in the evening, or even in the daytime (it really does not matter when; but I want first to discuss the nightly sleep enjoyed by every respectable person), one invariably goes back in time until a phase of life is reached lying at the very beginning of one's earthly existence. Moreover, one goes back even beyond one's earthly existence: to pre-earthly life; to that world from which we descended after acquiring a physical body by means of conception. At the moment of falling asleep, we are transported backward through the whole course of time. We are brought back to that moment when we descended from the heavenly realms to earth. Therefore if we fall asleep, for instance, on May 16, 1923, we are transposed from this date to the period which preceded our descent to earth; and also to the time which we cannot remember, because our memory stops at a certain point of our childhood. Each night, if we pass through it in real sleep, we actually become children again with regard to spirit and soul. And just as we can walk in the physical world for two or three miles through space, so a person can walk, at the age of 20, through time for a span of twenty years, thus arriving at a stage before he was a child — when he began to be a human being. We return, across time, to the starting-point of our earth-life. Hence, while the physical and etheric body are lying in bed, the I and astral body have gone back across time to an earlier moment. Now the question arises: if we go back every night to an earlier moment, what happens to our I and astral body while we are awake?

We would not ask such a question without being aware of this nightly going backward – even this going backward is only an illusion. In reality, our I and astral body have not emerged, even during our waking day-time consciousness, from the state in which we existed during our pre-earthly existence.

If we desire to recognize the truth about these facts, we must grasp the idea that the I and the astral body have no share in our earthly evolution. They remain behind; they stop at the point where we began to acquire a physical and an etheric body. Thus even when awake we leave our I and astral body at the point marking the beginning of our earth-life.

Fundamentally, we live our earth-life only with the physical body and, in a certain way, with the etheric body. Our physical body alone becomes old. As for the etheric body, it connects our beginning with that moment at which we happen to stand during a certain period.

Let us suppose that someone was born in 1900. His I and astral body have come to a standstill at the moment of his birth. The physical body reaches the age of 23; and the etheric body connects the moment at which this person entered earth-life with the moment experienced by him as the present one. Hence, if we did not possess an etheric body, we would awaken every morning as a newborn babe. Only by entering the etheric body before entering the physical body do we accommodate ourselves to the physical body's actual age. This accommodation must take place every morning. The etheric body is the mediator between the spirit-soul element and the physical body. It is a mediator forming the connecting link across the years of life. If a person reaches sixty or more years of age, the etheric body still forms the link between his very first appearance on earth — the point at which his I and astral body remained — and the age of his physical body.

Now you will say: Well, after all, the I is ours; it has aged with us; so also has our astral body aged with us, our thinking, feeling, and willing. If someone has become sixty, then his I too has become sixty.

This would be quite correct if our everyday I and our true I were identical. Our everyday I, however, is not the same as our real I which remains at the starting-point of our earth-life. Our physical body reaches, let us say, the age of 60. By means of the etheric body's mediation, the physical body reflects — corresponding to the moment at which it is living — the mirrored image of the real I. And what we see is the mirrored image of the real I reflected back to us, from moment to moment, by the physical body; but resulting from something that has not accompanied us into earth-life. This mirrored image we call our I. This mirrored image will naturally grow older as the reflecting apparatus, the physical body, gradually loses the freshness of early childhood and finally becomes wobbly and unstable. Yet this “I”, which is only the mirrored image of the real I, appears to age for the sole reason that the reflecting apparatus functions less efficiently after the physical body has grown old.

Like a perspective, the etheric body stretches from the present moment to the real I and astral body, both of which do not descend into the physical world.

You can imagine that these facts shaping human earth-life must acquire special significance at the moment of death. The physical body is the first that we discard in death. This body, however, is the one that determines our earthly age. In discarding this body, what do we retain? Primarily what we have not carried with us into earth-life, but which we have filled with all the experiences of earth-life: the I and the astral body. They have remained at the starting-point. But they have always looked at what the physical body, helped by the etheric body, has reflected back as a mirrored image.

Thus, in passing through the portal of death we stand at our life's starting-point; not filled, however, with what we carried within us when descending from the spiritual world, but filled with what was reflected back to us during earth-life as the mirrored image of this earth-life. We are filled to the brim with it. And this fact engenders an especial state of consciousness at the end of earth-life.

This special state of consciousness at the end of earth-life can be comprehended only by someone who, endowed with imaginative, inspired, and intuitive knowledge, is able to see what generally remains unconscious, what we experience between falling asleep and waking. Then one recognizes how man, every night, retraces the events of the past day. One person does it faster, another slower — in one minute or five minutes. Concerning these things, however, time-conditions are entirely different from those of normal earth-life. If we are gifted with supersensible knowledge, we may observe what is experienced by the I and the astral body. You may, by going backward, recapitulate what you have experienced in the physical world since waking up in the morning. Every night we repeat the experiences of the day in reverse order. Every night we first recapitulate the experiences we had just before going to sleep; then the preceding hours; then those lying back still further, and so forth. Having passed in review, in reverse order, all the day's events, we usually awaken after arriving at the moment when we started in the morning.

You might make the following objection: But people are sometimes awakened by a sudden noise. You must consider, however, that time may elapse in different ways. For instance, someone goes to bed at 11 in the evening, sleeps quietly until 3 in the morning and, having recapitulated in reverse order all that he experienced during the past day up until ten in the morning, is roused by a sudden disturbance. In such a case, the rest of the time can be retraced very rapidly in the last few moments before waking. Thus events that have stretched themselves out over several hours may, in such a case, be passed through again almost instantly. The conditions of time change in the sleeping state. Time may be completely compressed. Hence we may truthfully say that the human being, during every period of sleep, passes through in reverse what he has experienced during his last waking period. He recapitulates the events not only by seeing them before him, but also by interweaving his experiences with a complete moral judgment of what he did during the day. The human being, as it were, is summoned to judge his own state of morality. And when, on awakening, we have finished this activity, we have passed something like a cosmic judgment on our worth as human beings. Every morning, having experienced in reverse what we did during the day, we appraise ourselves as a being of greater or lesser worth.

This description conveys to you what man's spirit and soul elements undergo unconsciously night, that is, during one third of our earth-life (if spent in a normal way). The soul passes through life in reverse; only somewhat faster, because merely one third of our earth-life is taken up by sleep.

After our physical body has been discarded in death, the part called by me in my writings etheric body, or formative-force body, gradually separates itself from the I and the astral body.

This separation takes place in such a manner that the human being, having passed through the portal of death, feels his thoughts, heretofore considered by him as something inward, become realities which acquire ever greater expansion. Two, three or four days after his death he has this feeling: Fundamentally I consist of nothing but thoughts. These thoughts, however, are driven asunder. The human being, as a thought-being, takes on ever greater dimensions; and finally this whole human thought-being is dissolved into the cosmos. But the more this thought-being (that is, the etheric body) is dissolved into the cosmos, the more arise experiences derived from other sources than ordinary consciousness.

Essentially, all that we have thought and visualized in the waking state is scattered three days after death. This fact cannot be evaded by hiding our heads in the sand. The content of conscious earth-life has vanished three days after death. But just because the things seemingly so important, so essential during earth-life are dissipated within three days, there arise from the depth memories of what could not come forth until now: memories of what we experienced at night between falling asleep and awakening. As the waking life of the day is scattered, dissipated, our inward depth sends forth the sum of experiences undergone by us during the night. These are none other than our day-time experiences, but passed through in reverse order and acquired, in every detail, by means of our moral sense.

You must remember that our real ego and our real astral body are still standing at life's beginning; whereas the mirrored images that we have received from the physical body, regardless of its age, now flutter away with the etheric body. What we have not looked at in the least during earth-life, our nightly experiences, now come forth as a new content. Therefore we do not really feel as if our earth-life were ended until three days have passed and the scattering of our etheric body has occurred. If someone dies, let us say, on May 16, 1923, he seems to be carried to the end of his earth-life by the appearance of his nightly experiences from nocturnal darkness. At the same time he is seized by the tendency to go backward.

Hence we pass again through the period spent, night in and night out in the state of sleep. This amounts to about one third of our earth-life.

The different religions describe this stage of existence as Purgatory, Kamaloka, and so forth. We pass through our earth-life, just as we passed through it unconsciously in successive nights, until our experiences have gone back to our life's beginning. The wheel of life, ever rotating, must return to its starting-point. Such is the course of events. Three days after death our day-time experiences have fluttered away. One third of our earth-life has been passed through in reverse; a period during which we can evaluate, in full consciousness, our human worth. For what we have passed through every night unconsciously rises into full consciousness once the etheric body has been discarded.

In ordinary life, we can conceive only of paths leading through space. Space, however, has no significance for the spirit and soul element; it is significant only for the physical-sensory element. When reaching the spirit and soul state, we must also conceive of paths leading through time. After death, we must go backward across the whole span of time traversed by our physical body since breaking away — as might be said — from the heavenly realms. Actually we go back thrice as fast, because the time is balanced through the experiences undergone by us every night. Thus we return anew to the starting-point; but enriched by all that we experienced as physical beings. Enriched not only by what remains as a memory — for what flew away with the etheric body still remains as a memory — but also by the judgment passed unconsciously each night on our worth as human beings.

Thus, depending on the kind of life lived by us, we sooner or later enter again (approximately after several decades) into the spiritual world whence we had departed — but departed only inasmuch as our consciousness was concerned. Actually, we have stood still at the starting-point, waiting until the physical body's earthly course has been fulfilled, so that we might return again to what we were before birth or conception.

In describing these things, especially in public, we must beware lest people be shocked by such unusual concepts. Speaking metaphorically, it could be said that we advance after death. In reality, however, we retrace our steps after death; we live our life in reverse. Time, as it rotates, returns to its starting-point. The following might be said: the divine world remains where it stood at the beginning. Man but bursts out, wanders out of the divine world. Then he comes back to it, bringing with him all that he has overcome while dwelling outside of the divine realms.

Then, in its turn, comes life. After returning once more to the spiritual world, enriched not only by conscious but also by unconscious earth-life; after “becoming as little children” who stand again within the heavenly realms, we pass into a kind of life that might be described in this way: now the human being beholds what he really is. Just as he perceived, with his ordinary consciousness, the plants, stones, and animals among whom he dwelt on earth, so he now perceives his new surroundings. What I am describing is life after death. Here man sees himself surrounded by human souls who, having died or not yet having been born, undergo no earthly experiences, but only those of the divine world. Moreover, he perceives the higher Hierarchies, such as the Angels, the Archangels, the Exusiai and others still higher. You know these names and their significance from my book Occult Science.

The human being gathers experiences in this purely spiritual world. I could characterize these experiences by saying: it is as if the human being were carrying his own being into the cosmos. What he experienced during waking earth-life and during nightly unconscious earth-life, he now carries into the cosmos. It is needed by the cosmos.

While standing amidst earth-life we judge the whole surrounding cosmos, sun, moon and stars, only from a terrestrial viewpoint. As astronomers we calculate the movement of the sun, of the planets, the latter's' relationship to the stars, and so forth. This entire astronomical method, however, could be compared to the following procedure: suppose that a man stood here and a tiny being — a ladybug for example — observed him. Then this tiny creature would found a science. An “Association of Ladybugs for the Study of Mankind” would observe how people are born. (I presume that ladybugs, too, have a certain life-span.) This association would observe what happens to humans; would investigate all the phenomena backwards and forwards. One thing, however, would be ignored: that the human being eats and drinks, thus renewing his physical being again and again. The ladybugs would believe that man is born, grows by himself, and dies by himself. They would not be able to recognize that man's metabolism must be renewed from day to day.

As an astronomer the human being behaves somewhat similarly in regard to the world. He pays no attention to the fact that the world is a gigantic organism which needs nourishment, otherwise the stars would have been scattered long ago in all the directions of cosmic space and the planets would have deserted their orbits. This gigantic organism, in order to live, needs a kind of nourishment that must be received again and again. Whence comes this nourishment?

Here we encounter the great questions concerning man's relationship to the universe. It is simply stupendous how much physical science can prove. Only, somehow or other, these proofs have little meaning. People who have been told that Anthroposophy contradicts ordinary science in many things are inclined to believe that this natural science can prove anything. This is true and not denied by Anthroposophy. Science can prove anything in the world. But things happen to be constituted in such a way that, in certain cases, these proofs have nothing to do with reality.

Let us suppose that I could calculate how the physical structure of the human heart changes from one year to the next. Then we might say: a man of thirty-three will have such and such a heart structure; at thirty-four he will have a certain heart structure; at thirty-five he will have still another heart structure, and so forth. Having made these observations over a period of five years, I calculate how the heart structure of this man was constituted let us say thirty years ago. This can be done. Now the whole physical structure of the heart lies before me. I can also calculate how it was constituted three hundred years ago. Here, however, arises a slight difficulty: three hundred years ago this heart did not exist and could, therefore, have had no physical structure of any kind. The calculation was absolutely correct. We can prove that the heart was constituted three hundred years ago in such and such a way, only it did not exist. We can also prove that the heart will be constituted three hundred years later in such and such a way, only then it will have ceased to exist. But the proofs are completely infallible.

Geology can be handled today in the same manner. We can calculate that a certain layer of soil indicates this or that fact. Likewise, we calculate how everything was twenty million years ago, or will be twenty million years later. The proof clicks with marvelous accuracy: only the earth did not exist twenty million years ago. It is the same as with the heart. Neither is the earth going to exist twenty million years later. The proofs are flawless, but have nothing whatever to do with reality. This is how things actually are. The possibilities of being deceived by physical life are immeasurably great. We must be able to penetrate spiritual life if we desire to gain a standpoint from which the physical world can be judged.

And now let us go back to what I meant to explain by this digression concerning proofs that have no contact with reality. Let us go back to the moment after death, as I characterized it, and observe how the human being adjusts his life to the world of spiritual facts and spiritual beings. He brings into the spiritual world what he experienced on earth while waking and sleeping.

Just consider that these experiences are the nourishment of the cosmos; that they are continuously needed by the cosmos in order to live on. Whatever we experience on earth in the course of an easy or hard life is carried by us into the cosmos after death. We thus feel how our being is dissolved into the cosmos to furnish its nourishment. These experiences, undergone by man between death and a new birth, are of overwhelming grandeur, of immeasurable loftiness.

Then comes the moment when man appears to himself no longer as a unity, but as a multiplicity. He appears to himself as if some of his virtues and qualities moved, as it were, towards one star; others towards a different star. Now man perceives how his being is scattered out into the whole world. He also perceives how the parts of his being fight with one another, harmonize with one another, disharmonize with one another. Man feels how what he experienced on earth by day or by night is scattered into the cosmos. And just as we held fast to our nightly experiences when, three days after death, our thoughts — that is, the essence of our waking life — dissipated out into the cosmos and we, concentrating on our nightly experiences, lived again over, but backward, our whole earth-life until the starting-point of our is reached; so now, when our entire earthly human experience is scattered out into the cosmos, we hold fast to what we represent as human beings belonging to a super-sensible world order.

Now our real I emerges from what might be called the Dionysically disjointed human being. Gradually there emerges the consciousness: You are nothing but spirit. You have only dwelt in a physical body, have only passed through — even in the nightly experiences — the events brought upon you by the physical body. You are a spirit among spirits.

Now we enter a spiritual existence among spiritual beings. Our physical substance is scattered and dissolved in the cosmos. What we passed through here on earth is divided up and given to the cosmos: so that it might nourish the cosmos and enable it to live on; so that the cosmos might receive new incentives for the movement and sustenance of its stars. Just as we must partake of physical nourishment in order to live as physical persons between birth and death, so must the cosmos partake of human experiences, take them into itself. Thus we feel ourselves more and more as cosmic people; find our whole being transfused into the cosmos — but a cosmos taken in a spiritual sense. And then the moment approaches when we must seek the transition from death to a new birth; from man become cosmos to cosmos become man. We have ascended by identifying ourselves more and more with the cosmos. A moment comes — I have called it in my Mystery Plays the Great Midnight Hour of Existence — which brings to us this feeling: We must again become human beings. What we carried into the cosmos must be returned to us by the cosmos, so that we may come back to earth.

Today it was my main purpose to describe man's being, as it is carried out of earth-life into the vast cosmic space. Thus this sketch — which will be enlarged upon during the coming days — has placed us into the center of life between death and a new birth.

Thanks to The Rudlf Steiner Archive