Intelligent evolution


 Underlying these lectures is the view that rather than being a once-and-for-all act, intelligent design is an ongoing evolutionary process, and that it would be very helpful if we could understand where we have come from, where we are now and where we are going. As human beings we are at the centre of what may be the biggest mess the world has been in since God foreclosed on the Garden of Eden. We sense that our powers of thought and moral insight come from the spiritual world, that by the grace of God we are able to use them as free individuals, and that it is our duty to do so. This moral and intellectual freedom is in cosmic terms a comparatively recent development, although in human terms its acquisition has been a long-drawn-out process. Out of the many insights that Rudolf Steiner gave into these matters, I’ll give the briefest possible outline up to the beginning of something resembling modern scientific thinking – in other words, the period in the sixth century BC, just before the great age of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Then I’ll talk about some of the early philosophers and the events in the spiritual world that Steiner regarded as crucial in fostering this flowering of Greek thought. We’ll see how Aristotle imposed some order on the mass of warring opinions produced by earlier philosophers, but still left problems that haunted thinkers for many years to come. Finally I’ll give a preview of the next lecture.

According to Rudolf Steiner, the story of the human race began in a remote age of the world, long before our present states of matter appeared. As Steiner describes the situation in An Outline of Esoteric Science, we must imagine a state of consciousness in which we lacked any sense of individuality or separation from the heavenly powers who were to foster our evolution. The whole process of evolution has been one of physical densification and increasing self-awareness, and has been guided by successive levels of spiritual beings who have appeared to humanity as gods and angels and have supplied the divine intelligence that is inherent in the human and natural world. For a very long time the human race lived in complete communion with the spiritual world, but at a certain point a weaning process began so that eventually we would be able to take the responsibility for our thoughts and actions. The intention was that through our increasing connection with the physical world, we should become independent and eventually reunite with the spirit out of our own free will. In speaking about the human life-cycle, a great anthroposophist by the name of Walter Johannes Stein once remarked “Ve enter though ze gate of birth and ve leave through ze gate of death, and in between ve have ze time of our lives.” Ve – er, we – are born out of the spirit and when we die we return to the spirit; this, however, is something we don’t have much option about and, as the poet Wordsworth mentioned, when we arrive on earth we may be trailing clouds of glory but we soon forget where we came from.[1] When Steiner spoke of returning in freedom to the spirit he was talking about something that we would eventually do as living, conscious people and, in order to see how Steiner’s story works, we need to be willing to allow the idea of reincarnation into our thinking. In our past incarnations we have moved further and further from our spiritual home, and in future incarnations we may freely return. Or we may not, and some of the reasons why we should probably be more concerned about this than about the condition of the dollar will emerge in these talks.

If you are familiar with the Revelation of St. John the Divine, you will know that “there was war in Heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, and prevailed not… and the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the devil and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world. He was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.” I’m not a biblical scholar and I’m certainly not going to tell you that this is a poetical description of events described by Rudolf Steiner. I am quite prepared to believe that St. John gave a factual description of events in the heavens that have had far-reaching results on earth. My point is that when we talk about people as beings created by God and given free will, we tend to forget that on higher levels of existence something similar applies to angels and all the other beings of the hierarchies. Steiner gave us some information not only about the precipitation of Satan and his hosts but also about other disagreements that have taken place in the heavens and their results for the people of earth. Nature, with all its beauty and all its cruel waste, and the human being, full of high aspirations and ghastly failings, give the impression of good things spoilt. In the Judeo-Christian tradition we regard this as the result of the Fall, and we realize that when angels fall, the earth and its inhabitants suffer. The ancient plan for human evolution has been subverted and a big part of history has been the constant effort to transform evil into good so that we can return freely to the spirit instead of becoming stuck in materialism or drifting in a warm and pleasant sea of easy spirituality. That is why Christ is with us and Michael is his right-hand archangel. Before getting down to some ordinary, exoteric history I’ll add that Steiner didn’t want to be believed merely on his say-so. The question is, does what he says make sense in the light of our own experience and knowledge? The history we’ll be going into this evening gives a pretty good read on that question.




The Pre-Socratic Philosophers


The earliest Greek philosophers appeared in the sixth century BC, which was roughly six hundred years after the siege of Troy, between two and three hundred years after the composition of the Iliad and about 100 years after the lifetime of a grumpy Boeotian farmer called Hesiod. Hesiod’s father left him and his brother a small plot of land in a hamlet called Ascra at the foot of Mount Helicon, which is the traditional home of the Muses. Hesiod, who appears to have been an introverted misogynist, referred to Ascra as “a cursed place, cruel in winter, hard in summer, never pleasant”, and seems to have spent his long winter evenings writing the poetry from which later Greek writers derived a great deal of their mythology. His Theogony concerns the origins of the world and of the gods and shows a special interest in their family relations. According to the fifth century historian Herodotus, Hesiod's retelling of the old stories became the generally accepted version.

Against the mythological background provided by Homer and Hesiod we can place a little political history.             Around 1000 BC, Greek colonists, driven from the mainland by the Dorians, established colonies in Ionia, on the west coast of what is now Turkey. In spite of several invasions, which culminated in occupation by the Persians in 546 BC, their twelve cities remained prosperous. These included Miletus, Samos, Ephesus and Colophon, places that some rather well known people came from or went to, including St. Paul. The Ionian revolt against King Darius I in 500 BC precipitated the Persian Wars. While all this was going on, Greek philosophy is traditionally supposed to have begun in 585 BC when Thales of Miletus correctly forecast an eclipse of the sun.[2] What makes the Greek philosophy of this period so striking, however, is not that people were suddenly able to perform such mathematical feats as predicting eclipses. The Babylonian astronomers had been doing that for centuries. Later on, when Aristotle referred to the new philosophers as physicists, he meant that they had studied everything that happens in the natural world. The Babylonians had worked for the most part with purely mathematical relations, like the rhythms of the solar system, but the Greeks got into the deepest philosophical questions. How and why did the universe begin? What is it made of and how does it work?

Old farmer Hesiod had answered some of these questions before, and had done so in terms of the creative deeds of gods. Some of the activities of the Olympian Pantheon do not seem particularly godlike to us, but this is understandable since, by the time when Homer and Hesiod were at work, the power of human beings to see into the divine world had already waned considerably. Many of the stories have reached us in corrupt forms, depicting the Gods as irresponsible people equipped with supernatural powers, with Zeus as a sort of ultimate James Bond, rather than divine beings caring for the health of the human race. Xenophanes of Colophon, who lived from about 570 – 475 BC, complained that “Homer and Hesiod attributed to the gods all the things that among men are regarded as shameful and blameworthy – theft and adultery and mutual deception”, and he rejected the whole pantheon in favor of a single great god who perceives and works through the sheer power of thought.

Xenophanes was not the only one to dismiss the Olympian deities in favor of something less personal, more reliable and more intellectual. The early philosophers, now known as the pre-Socratics, generally agreed that the universe is lawful and that its processes can be understood. History is not a one-damn-thing-after-another sequence of unrelated events and nature is not just a playground for a troupe of whimsical gods. This does not mean that the pre-Socratics were atheists – only that they wanted nature to be self-explanatory and God, or the gods, to be rational and not to interfere too much. It’s worth noting, however, that some of them came close to committing the sins of which Socrates himself was suspected – impiety and atheism – and for which he was put to death. Socrates, however, had the misfortune to live in a democracy in which he could be condemned by a majority vote of five hundred of his fellow citizens. But that’s another story.




If you want to say that nature is self-explanatory you have to show that its enormous variety and changeability can be explained in terms of a few basic principles. This is where we come to the ancient idea of the elements. The Greek elements bore very little resemblance to those of modern physical science and there was no more agreement among the pre-Socratics about them than about most of the other topics they discussed. Several of them believed that everything comes from transformations of a single element. Thales thought it was water, while his fellow-citizen Anaximander spoke of an indefinite basic stuff, a sort of primal goo, from which all familiar substances derive. Anaximenes, who was Anaximander’s younger contemporary and pupil, thought the primal stuff was air. Alcmaeon, the physician, wanted to explain everything in terms of pairs of opposites: hot and cold, light and dark, wet and dry. Xenophanes seems to have thought that earth was the primal substance and Heraclitus, who came from Ephesus and was known as the ‘obscure’ and the ‘riddler’, made fire his principle.

This is the kind of nest of contradictions that makes students of early Greek philosophy reach for the Advil, but we must remember that these people were thinking, talking and writing long before the orderly philosophical worlds of Plato and Aristotle appeared. There is a story[3] that the great playwright Euripides gave Socrates a copy of Heraclitus’ book and asked him what he thought of it. Socrates replied: “What I understand is splendid; and I think that what I don’t understand is too – but it would take a Delian diver to get to the bottom of it.” Here is a sample from a historian called Hippolytus: “Heraclitus says that the universe is divisible and indivisible, generated and ungenerated, mortal and immortal, Word and Eternity, Father and Son, God and Justice. He praises and admires the unseen part of God’s power above the known part but says that he honors more those things which are learned by sight and hearing...’” No wonder that Socrates was puzzled and later philosophers and divines from Parmenides to Averroes[4] and Aquinas felt the need to assert that contradictory statements could not be simultaneously true.

In spite of all these different opinions some common factors are clear, and one the most important for us is that to these proto-physicists, the physical objects of nature were not merely physical: Aristotle remarked that “Some say that soul is mixed with everything and perhaps that is why Thales thought that the universe is full of gods.” Anaximenes believed that our souls, being air, hold us together, and breath and air contain the whole world. One very basic idea that emerged is that the process of creation implies the necessity of destruction. This idea makes perfect sense to us. All living things die and return their substance to the earth; of dust thou art made and to dust thou shalt return. The very rocks crumble and lose their nature. But Anaximander explains this by saying, “For they give justice and reparation to one another in accordance with the arrangement of time”, and we feel baffled again.

During this time, Greeks had colonized parts of the island of Sicily and produced a philosopher who did his best to bring some order and unity to the scene. This was Empedocles (c.495 – 435 BC) who tried to account for all the variety of different substances in terms of combinations of four elements; earth, water, air and fire. This was accepted by later philosophers and is what most people think of when ‘the Greek elements’ are mentioned. We must beware of thinking that this poor old guy had the right general idea but got all the details wrong. Empedocles says that the elements in different substances are held together by love and torn apart by strife, so you can see that his ideas moved in a totally different world from those of a modern scientist. Some people have tried to put this in modern terms by saying that love simply means a force of attraction and strife a force of repulsion, assuming naïvely that the ancient Greeks thought in exactly the same way as we do but had odd, fanciful ways of expressing themselves. To the pre-Socratics, however, the world was still ensouled and permeable to the spirit, and it wasn’t until the eighteenth century that the soul element was finally driven out of physical science – only to be brought back a little later by Goethe and Rudolf Steiner. Love and strife transform the elements, just as they transform men and women. Empedocles believed that human reason reaches only so far, and appealed for divine help to keep the search for knowledge on the right path:


“O Gods, from holy mouths channel forth a pure spring.

And you, Muse of long memory, white-armed maiden,

I beseech: tell me what is right for mortals to hear.”


The Muse assures him that true learning is possible and that an understanding of the natural world is open to those who have the right relationship to divine wisdom. People had begun what we can recognize as serious scientific thinking about the natural world, but they still felt the presence of the divine and the need for guidance from the spirit. If you are now thinking that Empedocles has put things into a good and perfectly understandable perspective you are in for a disappointment, for while he was at work another philosophical movement began which cast serious doubt on whether any kind of scientific knowledge was possible at all; but before going into that it is time to see what Rudolf Steiner had to say about the great change of consciousness that gives the key to all these events.




Behind the Scenes


At the beginning of the Iliad, Homer, or whoever it was, invokes the Muse: “Sing the wrath of Achilles…” Four hundred years later we find Empedocles still asking for divine advice.[5] This is an observation that works in two directions. Here, as has often been said, is a manifestation of human dependence on the Gods; what we are to hear is the divine voice speaking through the human author. But it also indicates that these individuals were sufficiently out of the womb to be able to make such a request. Babies don’t ask their parents for advice. Young children ask a lot of questions and teenagers may occasionally ask for advice but don’t usually take it. It’s tempting to say that Empedocles was in the young child stage and that we are still going through teenagery, but it’s not an analogy that I’d want to press. It’s a slightly better analogy to say that at a certain point the Gods decided to throw us out of the nest and get us to fly on our own – that is, to do our own thinking and take responsibility for our actions. Steiner frequently talked about the way in which the powers of thinking and acting independently were instilled into the human being, and he described the process from several different angles. The following discussion draws mainly on a series of lectures given in 1923, called The Driving Force of Spiritual Powers in World History and on his book The Riddles of Philosophy. In later lectures I’ll bring this into relation with descriptions given in the Karma Lectures and the Letters to Members.

We are so used to experiencing our thinking as a process that we control, and our thoughts as our own, even when we get them from someone else, that it is hard not to assume that this has always been so. And yet the whole flavor of the ancient civilizations is quite removed from anything that we experience today. The objects of everyday experience were physical, certainly, but not merely physical. Thoughts were not just about the objects of perception but were perceived as belonging to and inherent in those objects. The ancient Greeks, as Rudolf Steiner tells us, were conscious of the spiritual beings who were in charge of the workings of nature:

“If an ancient Greek had wanted to explain the origin of his thoughts through knowledge of the Mysteries, he would have had to say the following: I turn my spiritual sight up toward those beings who, through the science of the mysteries, have been revealed to me as the Beings of Form. They are the bearers of cosmic intelligence and cosmic thoughts. They let thoughts stream through all the world events, and they bestow these thoughts upon the human soul so that it can experience them consciously.”[6]

The Beings of Form are also called the Exousiai or, in St. Paul’s terminology, the Powers, the fourth hierarchy above the human being.

Steiner describes how, in a process centered in the fourth century AD and reaching completion in the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the Exousiai gave up their rulership of the cosmic intelligence to the Archai – the Principalities – one step closer to the human being. At the same time the Exousiai maintained their stewardship of the whole world of sense impressions – colors, forms and sounds. To the ancient Greek, the angelic thought-forms were inseparable from the objects they belonged to, and were perceived along with the colors, forms and sounds of those objects. By the time the pre-Socratics appeared, this ancient unity of thought and thing was just beginning to come apart and, while colors, forms and sounds were still perceived externally, people began to experience thinking as an inner process. We human beings seem to be slow learners – it took us about two thousand years to get these thoughts all the way into our heads. If the process was centered on the fourth century AD and completed by about the fourteenth, it must have begun in the seventh century BC and extended over the period that Steiner called the Age of the Intellectual Soul. *** Its beginning helps us to understand why the Presocratic philosophers got busy when they did, and its end is connected with the growing feelings of independence and self-confidence with which people in the Renaissance tackled the problems of the world around them. But if we were able to plot a learning curve for the period in question, it would not be a nice smooth ascent – it would look more like one of our recent days on the stock market and it wouldn’t end punctually in 1400 AD. Recently my younger son gave me an I-pod, but it took me several days to figure out how to use it, and this reminded me of the fact that when we gave him his first bicycle the first thing he did was to fall off it. So it’s very important to realize that although 1400 AD gives us a rough date for the end of the downloading process, we’re still learning how to use our new capacities.




Problems Emerge


The gift of intelligence and the separation of thinking from sense perception had some rather painful results. It is what made philosophy and science possible in the first place, but it soon had the paradoxical effect of making some of the Greeks feel that any form of natural science is impossible.

The chief hero or villain of this new movement was Parmenides of Elea, who flourished in the early fifth century BC. He composed a long poem consisting of two parts, called The Way of Truth and The Way of Opinion, and there is nothing in the whole of early Greek philosophy that more clearly illustrates the developing separation between the inner and the outer. Like Empedocles, Parmenides appeals for divine guidance and the Goddess of Justice tells him that he must begin to take responsibility for his thinking. “You must learn all things”, she says, “both the steadfast heart of compelling truth and the untrustworthy opinions of mortal men.”

She tells Parmenides that his thinking takes precedence over the deceptive claims of the senses; and that the processes that seem to be going on in the natural world are not “the kind of change you can believe in.” The Way of Truth is the path of reason and thinking, but The Way of Opinion describes the natural world as it appeals to our senses and is, according to the Goddess, a “trail devoid of knowledge.” So, to Parmenides, the inner world of thinking is reliable and truthful, while the outer world of sense-perception is unreliable and deceitful.

His thinking leads him to believe that, contrary to all appearances, creation and dissolution are impossible and that the world is a single, permanent, eternal, unchangeable object. So it seemed that thinking was about to cut the ground from under the scientists’ feet, for science depends precisely on observing the changes in the natural world that Parmenides considered illusory. As Rudolf Steiner puts it, it was as if Parmenides were surrounded by a wall of thought,[7] cutting him off from the world of nature.

The other two members of the Eleatic school were Zeno, famous for his paradoxes, and Melissus of Samos. The little that is known of Melissus suggests that he was quite a character. When the island of Samos was attacked by the Athenians in 441 BC, Melissus took advantage of the temporary absence of Pericles, the Athenian leader, and launched a successful attack in which the Samians defeated the Athenian navy and gained control of the Aegean Sea.[8] In the long run the Athenians prevailed, but Melissus had made a little dent in the course of history. Goethe once remarked that it is easier to act than to think, but Melissus managed to do both. He made his mark on philosophy by expressing Parmenides’ obscure poem in plain prose and adding some thoughts of his own. Here are some samples:


            “The world is eternal and infinite and one and wholly homogeneous. And it will neither perish nor grow larger nor change its arrangement nor suffer pain nor suffer anguish. For if it underwent any of these things it would no longer be one.”


            “Everything we see seems to us to change from what it was before. So it is clear that we do not see correctly. For things would not change if they were true, but each would be as it seemed to be: for nothing is stronger than what is true…”


Nothing is stronger than what is true. If appearances seem to contradict what we know to be true, the appearances must be wrong. The belief that soundly argued philosophical conclusions are compulsory continued for many centuries, in spite of the disagreements that arose between individual philosophers and schools of philosophy. Truth may have an indivisible core, but it seems to wear many faces and this may be one of the reasons why science became increasingly separated from philosophy. The philosophical problems were too difficult and it turned out to be perfectly possible to get on with the scientific job and ignore them – but only up to a point. Philosophy has had its revenge, but that’s yet another story.

So now, bearing on mind what I said about Advil, let me review the situation just before Plato and Aristotle appeared, and give a preview of the next lecture: we have Empedocles, whose system of elements seemed as if it might put ancient science on a consistent footing; we have Parmenides and Melissus, who believe that nothing ever changes and make it appear that science is irrelevant; we have Heraclitus, who talks in riddles, whose motto is panta rei – all flows – and who thinks that the only permanent feature of the world is change. And now along comes Democritus with the idea that he can solve the whole thing with a system of permanent atoms swirling around in ever-changing patterns. This sounds very plausible, but Parmenides finds it very objectionable and Democritus himself realizes that it seems to lead only to another dead end. We might well ask whether the heavenly powers who, if I may say so respectfully, were responsible for this mess, really intended things to turn out the way they did. So let me also remind you that when you gave your children their first bicycles you didn’t intend them to fall off, but you knew that it was a possibility. Like the best human parents, our spiritual parents didn’t supply training wheels but did arrange for adequate instruction. In addition to guidance already given in the Egypto-Chaldean period[9] about the ways of the physical world, and to what continued to flow out of the spiritual world, they gave us Plato and Aristotle, and it was the latter who went very deeply into just those problems of sense perception and thinking that had not existed before the change of consciousness began. He provided a workable basis for scientific philosophy that would last for two thousand years, and one of the key ingredients was the theory of potential, which looks forward to Goethean science and appears to make the atomic theory unnecessary. Aristotle provided inspiration and working material for many generations of thinkers. Next time we’ll see how his thought traveled into Arabia and across North Africa, and lived on in the minds of the Muslim and Christian philosophers of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. But, in spite of all temptations, we must remember that this is not a philosophy course. Our purpose is to understand the progress of the human race from complete dependence on the spiritual world to our present state of striving for independence and individuality. Aristotle may have left us a practical system but it has its share of enigmas, and evolution didn’t stop with his death in 322 BC. One of these is a passage in a book called De AnimaAbout the Soul – which seems to cast doubt on whether it’s possible that a human being can really be a true individual with an independent set of perceptions and thoughts. Such difficulties refused to go away and, as always, there were events in the spiritual world that fed impulses into human history. The trail will lead us to Baghdad and the court of Harun el Rashid at the turn of the ninth century. By this time consciousness of the spirit had receded so much that divine revelation had to be replaced by authority and tradition. So while there was conflict in the heavens about the future of the human race, there were endless disputes on earth between Muslim theologians and the great Arabian thinkers, who were devoted both to Islam and to Aristotle and believed that sound religion must make good philosophical sense. These problems found their way into Western Europe, where in the thirteenth century the labors of St. Thomas Aquinas gave rise to a great synthesis of Aristotelian philosophy and Christian revelation. This is where I hope to get to in the next lecture, and after that we’ll see how things fell apart again.

In the meantime let’s remember that the divine powers didn’t present us with the gift of intelligence in order to make our lives easy. Many of us don’t seem to use it very much and some of those who do often wish they could give it back. At the risk of sounding like an elderly moralizer, I simply recommend patience and fortitude, knowledge and courage.

            Oh, by the way, I’m not intending to explain about turkeys, but you may have the opportunity to do a little research yourselves – say, in a couple of weeks’ time.[10]

[1] Intimations of Immortality

[2] This discussion owes a lot to Early Greek Philosophy, Penguin 1987, translated, edited and introduced by Jonathan Barnes, and, of course, to Rudolf Steiner, who provided the spiritual key to the working of the ancient Greek mind.

[3] Diogenes Laertius, writing in about 200 AD.

[4] See Averroes: On the Harmony of Religion and Philosophy. Tr. and ed. G. F. Hourani; Luzac, London 1976

[5] It’s worth noting that four hundred years after Empedocles, Virgil began the Aeneid (the official history of the origins of Rome) with the words, “Arms and the man I sing.”

[6] From a lecture which was part of the 1923 cycle, The Driving Force of Spiritual Powers in World History, Steiner Book Centre, North Vancouver, 1972, and was reprinted in The Inner Nature of Music and the Experience of Tone, Spring Valley, NY, 1983.

[7] Rudolf Steiner: The Riddles of Philosophy, Anthroposophic Press, Spring Valley, New York, 1973.

[8] As told by Plutarch

[9] See my lectures on alchemy, available at SouthernCrossReview.org

[10] This lecture was given two weeks before Thanksgiving.

Lecture II will appear in the next issue of SCR.