by Rudolf Steiner
Volume II, Lecture 3
April 23, 1924
My dear friends,
I have been laying particular emphasis on the fact that study of the historical development of the life of mankind must lead on to study of the human being himself. All our endeavours aim in the direction of placing man at the centre of our study of the world. Two ends are attained thereby. Firstly, it is only in this way that the world can be studied as it truly is. For all that man sees spread around him in nature is only a part — gives as it were one picture of the world only: and to limit study of the world to this realm of nature is like studying a plant without looking beyond root, green leaf and stem, and ignoring flower and fruit. This kind of study can never reveal the whole plant. Imagine a creature that is always born at a particular time of the year, lives out its life during a period when the plant grows as far as the green leaves and no further, dies before the plant is in blossom and appears again only when roots and green leaves are there. — Such a creature would never have knowledge of the whole plant; it would regard the plant as something that has roots and leaves only.
The materialistic mind of today has got itself into a similar position as regards its approach to the world. It considers only the broad foundations of life, not what blossoms forth from the totality of earthly evolution and earthly existence — namely, man himself. The real way of approach must be to study nature in her full extent, but in such a way as all the time to realise that she must needs create man out of herself. We shall then see man as the microcosm he truly is, as the concentration of all that is to be found outspread in the far spaces of the cosmos.
As soon, however, as we study history from this point of view, we are no longer able to regard the human being as a resultant of the forces of history, as a single, self-contained being. We must take account of the fact that he passes through different earthly lives: one such life occurs at an earlier time and another at a later. This very fact places man at the centre of our studies, but now in his whole being, as an individuality. This is the one result that is attained when we look in this way at nature and at history.
The other is this. The very fact of placing man at the centre of study makes for humility. Lack of humility is due to nothing else than lack of knowledge. A penetrating, comprehensive knowledge of man in his connection with the events of the world and of history will certainly not lead to excessive self-esteem; rather it will lead the human being to look at himself objectively. It is precisely when a person does not know himself that there rises up in him those feelings which have their source in the unknown regions of his being. Instinctive, emotional impulses make themselves felt. And it is these instinctive, emotional impulses, rooted as they are in the subconscious, that make for arrogance and pride. On the other hand, when consciousness penetrates farther and farther into those regions where man comes to know himself and to recognise how in the sequence of historical events he belongs to the whole wide universe — then, simply by virtue of an inner law, humility will unfold in him. The recognition of his place in universal existence invariably calls forth humility, never arrogance. All genuine study pursued in Anthroposophy has its ethical side, carries with it an ethical impulse.
Unlike modern materialism, Anthroposophy will not lead to a conception of life in which ethics and morality are a mere adjunct; ethics and morality emerge, as if inwardly impelled, from all genuine anthroposophical study.
I want now to show you by concrete examples, how the fruits of earlier epochs of history are carried over into later epochs through human beings themselves. A certain very striking example now to be given, is associated with Switzerland.
Our gaze falls upon a man who lived about a hundred years before the founding of Christianity. — I am relating to you what can be discovered through spiritual scientific investigation. — At this period in history we find a personality who is a kind of slave overseer in southern Europe.
We must not associate with a slave overseer of those times the feelings that the word immediately calls up in us now. Slavery was the general custom in days of antiquity, and at the time of which I am speaking it was essentially mild in form; the overseers were usually educated men. Indeed the teachers of important personages might well be slaves, who were often versed in the literary and scientific culture of the time. So you see, we must acquire sounder ideas about slavery — needless to say, without defending it in the least — when we are considering this aspect of the life of antiquity.
We find, then, a personality whose calling it is to be in charge of a number of slaves and to apportion their tasks. He is an extraordinarily lovable man, gentle and kind-hearted and when he is able to have his own way he does everything to make life easier for the slaves. In authority over him, however, is a rough, somewhat brutal personality. This man is, as we should say nowadays, his superior officer. And this superior officer is responsible for many things that arouse resentment and animosity in the slaves. When the personality of whom I am speaking — the slave overseer — passes through the gate of death, he is surrounded in the time between death and a new birth by all the souls who were thus united with him on earth, the souls of the slaves who had been in his charge. But as an individuality he is very strongly connected with the one who was his superior officer. The fact that he, as the slave overseer, was obliged to obey this superior officer — for in accordance with the prevailing customs of the time he always did obey him, though often very unwillingly — this fact established a strong karmic tie between them. But a deep karmic tie was also established by the relationship that had existed in the physical world between the overseer and the slaves, for in many respects he had been their teacher as well.
We must thus picture a further life unfolding between death and rebirth among all these individualities of whom I have spoken.
Afterwards, somewhere about the 9th century A.D., the individuality of the slave overseer is born again, in Central Europe, but now as a woman, and moreover, because of the prevailing karmic connection, as the wife of the former superior officer who reincarnated as a man. The two of them live together in a marital relationship that makes karmic compensation for the tie that had been established away back in the first century before the founding of Christianity, when they had lived as subordinate and superior officers respectively. The superior officer is now, in the 9th century A.D., in a commune in Central Europe where the inhabitants live on very intimate terms with one another; he holds some kind of official position in the commune, but he is everyone's servant and comes in for plenty of knocks and abuse.
Investigating the whole matter further, we find that the members of this rather extensive commune are the slaves who once had their tasks allotted to them in the way I told you. The superior officer has now become as it were the servant of them all, and has to experience the karmic fulfilment of many things which, through the instrumentality of the overseer, his brutality inflicted upon these people.
The wife of this man (she is the reincarnated overseer), suffers with a kind of silent resignation under all the impressions made by the ever-discontented superior officer in his new incarnation, and one can follow in detail how karmic destiny is here being fulfilled.
But we see, too, that this karma is by no means completely adjusted. A part only is adjusted, namely the karmic relationship between the slave overseer and his superior officer. This has been lived out and is essentially finished in the medieval incarnation in the 9th century; for the wife has paid off what her soul had experienced owing to the brutality of the man who had once been the superior officer and is now her husband.
This woman, the reincarnation of the former slave overseer, is born again, and what happens now is that the greater number of the souls who had once been slaves and had then come together again in the large commune — souls in whose destiny this individuality had twice played a part — came again as the children whose education this same individuality in his new incarnation has deeply at heart. For in this incarnation he comes as Johann Pestalozzi. And we see how Pestalozzi's infinite humanitarianism, his enthusiasm for education in the 18th century, is the karmic fulfilment in relation to human beings with whom he had already twice been connected — the karmic fulfilment of the experiences and the sufferings of earlier incarnations.
What comes to view in single personalities can be clear and objectively intelligible to us only when we are able to see the present earthly life against the background of earlier earthly lives.
Traits that go back not merely to the previous incarnation, but often to the one before that, and even earlier, sometimes show themselves in a person. We see how what has been planted, as it were, in the single incarnations, works its way through with a certain inner, spiritual necessity, inasmuch as the human being lives not only through earthly lives but also through lives between death and a new birth.
Paradoxical as it will seem to the modern mind, the only way in which human life can be understood in its deeper aspect is to centre our study of the course of world-events around observation of man himself in history. And man cannot be taken as belonging to one age of time only, as living in one earthly life only. In considering man, we must realise how the individuality passes from one earthly life to another, and how in the interval between death and a new birth he works upon and transforms that which has taken its course more in the subconscious realm of earthly life but for all that is connected with the actual shaping of the destiny. For the shaping of destiny takes place, not in the clear consciousness of the intellect, but in what weaves in the subconscious.
Let me now give you another example of how things work over in history through human individualities themselves.
In the first century A.D., about a hundred years after the founding of Christianity, we have an exceedingly significant Roman writer in the person of Tacitus. In all his work, and very particularly in his ‘Germania’, Tacitus proves himself a master of a concise, clear-cut style; he arrays the facts of history and geographical details in wonderfully rounded sentences with a genuinely epigrammatic ring. We may also remember how he, a man of wide culture, who knew everything considered worth knowing at that time — a hundred years after the founding of Christianity — makes no more than a passing allusion to Christ, mentioning Him as someone whom the Jews crucified but saying that this was of no great importance. Yet in point of fact, Tacitus is one of the greatest Romans.
Tacitus had a friend, the personality known in history as Pliny the Younger, himself the author of a number of letters and an ardent admirer of Tacitus.
To begin with, let us consider Pliny the Younger. He passes through the gate of death, through the life between death and a new birth, and is born again in the 11th century as a Countess of Tuscany in Italy, who is married to a Prince of Central Europe. The Prince has been robbed of his lands by Henry the Black of the Frankish-Salic dynasty and wants to secure for himself an estate in Italy. This Countess Beatrix owns the Castle of Canossa where, later on, Henry IV, the successor of Henry III the Black, was forced to make his famous penance to Pope Gregory.
Now this Countess Beatrix is an extraordinarily alert and active personality, taking keen interest in all the conditions and circumstances of the time. Indeed she cannot help being interested, for Henry III who had driven her husband, Gottfried, out of Alsace into Italy before his marriage to her, continued his persecution. Henry is a man of ruthless energy, who overthrows the Princes and Chieftains in his neighbourhood one after the other, does whatever he has a mind to do, and is not content when he has persecuted someone once, but does it a second time, when the victim has established himself somewhere else. — As I said, he was a man of ruthless vigour, a ‘great’ man in the medieval style of greatness. And when Gottfried had established himself in Tuscany, Henry was not content with having driven him out but proceeded to take the Countess back with him to Germany.
All these things gave the Countess an opportunity of forming a penetrating view of conditions in Italy, as well as of those in Germany. In her we have a person who is strongly representative of the time in which she lives, a woman of keen observation, vitality and energy, combined with largeness of heart and breadth of vision.
When, later on, Henry IV was forced to go on his journey of penance to Canossa, Beatrix's daughter Mathilde had become the owner of the Castle. Mathilde was on excellent terms with her mother whose qualities she had inherited, and was, in fact, the more gifted of the two. They were splendid women who because of all that had happened under Henry III and Henry IV, took a profound interest in the history of the times.
Investigation of these personalities leads to this remarkable result: the Countess Beatrix is the reincarnated Pliny the Younger, and her daughter Mathilde is the reincarnated Tacitus. Thus Tacitus, a writer of history in olden times, is now an observer of history on a wide scale — (when a woman has greatness in her she is often wonderfully gifted as an observer) — and not only an observer but a direct participant in historical events. For Mathilde is actually the owner of Canossa, the scene of issues that were immensely decisive in the Middle Ages. We find the former Tacitus now as an observer of history.
A deep intimacy develops between these two — mother and daughter — and their former work in the field of authorship enables them to grasp historical events with great perspicacity; subconsciously and instinctively they become closely linked with the world-process, as it takes its course in nature as well as in history.
And now, still later on, the following takes place. — Pliny the Younger, who in the Middle Ages was the Countess Beatrix, is born again in the 19th century, in a milieu of romanticism. He absorbs this romanticism — one cannot exactly say with enthusiasm, but with aesthetic pleasure. He has on the one hand this love for the romantic, and on the other — due to his family connections — a rather academic style; he finds his way into an academic style of writing. It is not, however, in line with his character. He is always wanting to get out of it, always wanting to discard this style.
This personality (the reincarnated Pliny the Younger and the Countess Beatrix) happens on one occasion brought about by destiny, to be visiting a friend, and takes up a book lying on the table, a book in English. He is fascinated by its style and at once feels: The style I have had up till now and that I owe to my family relationships, does not really belong to me. This is my style, this is the style I need. It is wonderful; I must acquire it at all costs.
As a writer he becomes an imitator of this style — I mean, of course, an artistic imitator in the best sense, not a pedantic one — an imitator of this style in the artistic, aesthetic sense of the word. And do you know, the book he opened at that moment, reading it right through as quickly as he possibly could and then afterwards reading everything he could find of the author's writings — this book was Ralph Waldo Emerson's Representative Men. And the person in question adopted its style, immediately translated two essays from it, conceived a deep veneration for the author, and was never content until he was able to meet him in real life.
This man, who really only now found himself, who for the first time found the style that belonged to him in his admiration for the other — this reincarnation of Pliny the Younger and of the Countess Beatrix, is none other than Herman Grimm. And in Emerson we have to do with the reincarnated Tacitus, the reincarnated Countess Mathilde.
When we observe Herman Grimm's admiration for Emerson, when we remember the way in which Herman Grimm encounters Emerson, we can find again the relationship of Pliny the Younger to Tacitus. In every sentence that Herman Grimm writes after this time, we can see the old relationship between Pliny the Younger and Tacitus emerging. And we see the admiration that Pliny the Younger had for Tacitus, nay more, the complete accord and understanding between them, coming out again in the admiration with which Herman Grimm looks up to Emerson.
And now for the first time we shall grasp wherein the essential greatness of Emerson's style consists, we shall perceive that what Tacitus displayed in his own way, Emerson again displays in his own special way. How does Emerson work? Those who visited Emerson discovered his way of working. There he was in a room; around him were several chairs, several tables. Books lay open everywhere and Emerson walked about among them. He would often read a sentence, imbibe it thoroughly and from it form his own magnificent, free-moving, epigrammatic sentences. That was how he worked. There you have an exact picture of Tacitus in life! Tacitus travels, takes hold of life everywhere; Emerson observes life in books. It all lives again!
And then there is this unconquerable desire in Herman Grimm to meet Emerson. Destiny leads him to Representative Men and he sees at once: this is how I must write, this is my true style. As I said, he had already acquired an academic style of writing from his uncle Jacob Grimm and his father Wilhelm Grimm, and he then abandons it. He is impelled by destiny to adopt a completely different style.
In Herman Grimm's writings we see how wide were his historical interests. He has an inner relationship of soul with Germany, combined with a deep interest in Italy. All this comes out in his writings.
These are things that go to show how the affairs of destiny work themselves out. And how is one led to perceive such things? One must first have an impression and then everything crystallizes around it. Thus we had first to envisage the picture of Herman Grimm opening Emerson's Representative Men. Now Herman Grimm used to read in a peculiar manner. He read a passage and then immediately drew back from what he had read: it was a gesture as though he were swallowing what he had read, sentence by sentence. And it was this inner gesture of swallowing sentence by sentence that made it possible to trace Herman Grimm to his earlier incarnation. In the case of Emerson it was the walking to and fro in front of the open books, as well as the rather stiff, half-Roman carriage of the man, as Herman Grimm saw him when they first met in Italy — it was these impressions that led one back from Emerson to Tacitus. Plasticity of vision is needed to follow up things of this kind.
My dear friends, I have given you here another example which should indicate how our study of history needs to be deepened. This deepening must really be evident among us as one of the fruits of the new impulse that should take effect in the Anthroposophical Society through the Christmas Foundation Meeting. We must in future go bravely and boldly forward to the study of far-reaching spiritual connections; we must have courage to reach a vantage-point for observation of these great spiritual connections. For this we shall need, above all, deep earnestness. Our life in Anthroposophy must be filled with earnestness.
And this earnestness will grow in the Anthroposophical Society if those who really want to do something in the Society give more and more thought to the contents of the News Sheet that is sent out every week into all circles of Anthroposophists as a supplement to the weekly periodical, Das Goetheanum. A picture is given there of how one may shape the life in the Groups in the sense and meaning of the Christmas Meeting, of what should be done in the members' meetings, how the teaching should be given and studied. The News Sheet is also intended to give a picture of what is happening among us. Its title is: ‘What is going on in the Anthroposophical Society’, and its aim is to bring into the whole Society a unity of thought, to spread a common atmosphere of thought over the thousands of Anthroposophists everywhere. When we live in such an atmosphere, when we understand what it means for all our thinking to be stimulated and directed by the Anthroposophical Guidelines, and when we understand how the Goetheanum will thus be placed in the centre as a concrete reality through the initiative of the esoteric Vorstand — I have emphasised again and again that we now have to do with a Vorstand which conceives its task to be the inauguration of an esoteric impulse — when we understand this truly, then that which has now to flow through the Anthroposophical Movement will be carried forward in the right way. For Anthroposophical Movement and Anthroposophical Society must become one. The Anthroposophical Society must make the whole cause of Anthroposophy its own.
And it is true to say that if once this ‘thinking in common’ is an active reality, then it can also become the bearer of comprehensive, far-reaching spiritual knowledge. A power will come to life in the Anthroposophical Society that really ought to be in it, for the recent developments of civilisation need to be given a tremendous turn if they are not to lead to a complete decline.
What is said concerning successive earthly lives of this or that individual may at first seem paradoxical, but if you look more closely, if you look into the progress made by the human beings of whom we have spoken in this connection, you will see that what is said is founded on reality; you will see that we are able to look into the active life of gods and men when with the eye of spirit we try in this way to apprehend the spiritual forces.
This, my dear friends, is what I would lay upon your hearts and souls. If you take with you this feeling, then this Easter Meeting will be like a revitalising of the Christmas Meeting; for if the Christmas Meeting is to work as it should, then all that has developed out of it must be the means of revitalising it, of bringing it to new life just as if it were present with us.
May many things grow out of the Christmas Meeting, in constant renewal! May many things grow out of it through the activity of courageous souls, souls who are fearless representatives of Anthroposophy. If our meetings result in strengthening courage in the souls of anthroposophists, then there will grow what is needed in the Society as the body for the anthroposophical soul: a courageous presentation to the world of the revelations of the Spirit vouchsafed in the age of Light that has now dawned after the end of Kali-Yuga; for these revelations are necessary for the further evolution of man. If we live in the consciousness of this we shall be inspired to work courageously. May this courage be strengthened by every meeting we hold. It can be so if we are able to take in all earnestness things that seem paradoxical and foolish to those who set the tone of thought in our day. But after all, it has often happened that the dominant tone of thought in one period was soon afterwards replaced by the very thing that was formerly suppressed. May a recognition of the true nature of history, and of how it is bound up with the onward flow of the lives of men, give courage for anthroposophical activity — the courage that is essential for the further progress of human civilisation.
Editor's Note: A rather large portion of this lecture is concerned with Conrad Ferdinand Meyer. As this personality was extensively covered in a previous lecture, we have deleted it here for the sake of relative brevity. For those who may wish to read the unabridged lecture, it can be found here.
Thanks to the Rudoolf Steiner Archive.