By Rudolf Steiner
Translation: Christian von Arnim
The Homeless Souls
Dornach, 10 June 1923
The reflections which we are beginning today are intended to encourage all those who have found their way to anthroposophy to think about their current position. They will present an opportunity for contemplation, for self-reflection, through a characterization of the anthroposophical movement and its relationship to the Anthroposophical Society. And in this context may I begin by speaking about the people who are central to such self-reflection: yourselves. There are those who found this path through an inner necessity of the soul, of the heart; others, perhaps, found it through the search for knowledge. There are many, however, who entered the anthroposophical movement for more or less mundane reasons; but through a deepening of the soul they have subsequently perhaps encountered more within it than they at first anticipated. But there is something which all those who end up in the anthroposophical movement have in common. And that is that they are initially driven by their inner destiny, their karma, to leave the ordinary highway of civilization on which the majority of mankind at present progresses, to search for their own path.
Let us think for a moment about the conditions in which most people now grow up. They are born to parents who are French or German, Catholic or Protestant or Jewish, or who belong to some other faith, and may hold a variety of beliefs. But among parents is the almost unquestioned assumption, which remains unspoken and sometimes unthought, that their children will, of course, grow up like themselves. These kinds of feelings naturally engender a social ambience, indeed social pressures, which more or less consciously push children into the kind of life which has been mapped out by these more or less clearly defined beliefs. The life of a child then follows its natural course of education and schooling. And during this time parents once again have all kinds of beliefs which exert a decisive influence on their children's lives. The belief, for instance, that my son will, of course, enter the secure employment of the civil service, or that he will inherit the parental business, or that my daughter will marry the man next door. It simply lies in the nature of social circumstances that they are governed by impulses which arise in this way. People have no choice in the matter because that is the effect of the beliefs which govern life. It may not always be obvious to parents, but schooling and all the other circumstances of childhood and youth imprison the human being and determine his position in life. The institutions of state and religion make the adult.
If the majority of people were asked to explain how they got where they are today, they would not be able to do so, because there would be something unbearable about having to think deeply about such matters. This unbearable element tends to be driven underground into subconscious or unconscious areas of our soul life. At best, it will be dredged up by a psychiatrist when it behaves in a particularly recalcitrant manner down there in those unknown provinces of the soul. But mostly one's own personality, the Self, is simply not strong enough to assert itself against what one has grown into in this way.
Occasionally people have the urge to rebel when their situation as a trainee, or even after an appointment, unexpectedly dawns on them. You might clench your fist in your pocket, or, if you are a woman, create a scene at home because of such disappointed life expectations. These are reactions against what people are forced to become. We also frequently seek to anaesthetize ourselves by concentrating on the pleasant things in life. We go to dances and follow this with a long lie-in, don't we? Time is then filled up in one way or another. Or someone might join a thoroughly patriotic party because his professional position demands that he belong to something which will reflect his values. We have already been enveloped by the state and our religion; now that must be supplemented by surrounding what one has unconsciously grown into with a sort of aura. Well, there is no need for me to go into further detail. That is roughly the way in which the people who move in the mainstream of life have grown into their existence.
But those who find it difficult to accept this end up on many possible and impossible byways. And anthroposophy is precisely one of these paths on which human beings are seeking to realize themselves; on which they want to live with such an understanding of themselves in a more conscious manner, to experience something which is under their control to a certain extent at least. Anthroposophists are for the most part people who do not walk along the [usual] highways of life. If we investigate further why that should be, we find that this is linked with the spiritual world.
Having relived the course of their lives in the spiritual world after death human beings enter a region where they become increasingly assimilated into the spiritual world, where their lives consist of working together with the beings of the higher hierarchies, where all their acts are related to this world of substantive spirit. But a time arrives when they begin to turn their attention to earth again. For a long time in advance of their birth, human beings unite on a soul level with the generations at the end of which stand the parents who give birth to them — not only as far back as their great-great-grandparents, but much further down the line of preceding generations. The majority of souls nowadays look down, as it were, to earth from the spiritual world and display a lively interest in what is happening to their ancestors. Such souls move in the mainstream of contemporary life.
In contrast, there are a number of souls, particularly at present, whose interest is concentrated less on worldly happenings as they approach a new life on earth than on the question of how they can develop maturity in the spiritual world. Their interest lies in the spiritual world right up to the moment before they find their way to earth. As a consequence, when they incarnate they arrive with a consciousness which has its origins in spiritual impulses. With their spiritual ambitions they outgrow their environment, and are thus predestined and prepared to go their own way.
Thus the souls who descend from pre-earthly to earthly existence can be divided into two groups. One group, to which the majority of people today still belong, comprises those souls who can make themselves remarkably at home on earth; who feel thoroughly comfortable in their warm nest, which so fascinated them long before they came down to earth, even if it does occasionally appear unpleasant — but that is only appearance, maya.
Other souls, who may pass patiently through childhood — appearance is not always the decisive thing — are less able to make themselves at home, are homeless souls, and grow beyond the warmth of the nest much more than they grow into it. This latter group includes those who are subsequently attracted to the anthroposophical movement. It is therefore clearly predetermined in a certain sense whether or not one is led to anthroposophy.
The things which are being sought by these souls on the byways of life, away from the major highways, manifest themselves in many ways. If the others did not find it so agreeable to take the well-trodden paths and did not put such obstacles in the way of homeless souls, the numbers of the latter would be much more obvious to their contemporaries. But it is widely apparent today how many souls have a hint of such homelessness about them.
The tendency to such homelessness could be anticipated: the rapidly growing evidence of a longing in homeless souls for an attitude to life which was not laid out in advance; a longing for the spirit in the chaos of contemporary spiritual life. In sketching an outline of this gradual development, you can find in it, if you reflect, a little something of what I would like to describe as the anthroposophical origins of each one of you.
By way of introduction today I will do no more than pick out in outline some characteristic features. If you look back at the last decades of the nineteenth century — we could take any number of fields, but let us take as a very characteristic one the cult of Richard Wagner. It is certainly true that much of this cult consisted of a cultural flirtation with new ideas, sensationalism and so on. But all kinds of people gathered in Bayreuth. One could see people who thought of the long journey to Bayreuth as a kind of modern pilgrimage. But even among the less fashionable there were those who were also homeless souls.
Now the essential effect of Wagnerianism on people — I speak not only about the musical element but about the movement as a cultural phenomenon — was to offer them something which went beyond all the usual offerings of a materialistic age. This gave people a feeling that here there was a gateway to a more spiritual world, a world differing from their normal environment. What went on in Bayreuth led to a great longing for more profound spiritual aspirations.
It was, of course, difficult at first to understand Richard Wagner's characters and dramatic compositions. But many people felt that they were created from a source very different from the crude materialism of the time. And the homeless souls who were driven in this particular direction were prompted into all kinds of dark, instinctive intuitions through what I might call the suggestive power of Wagnerian drama and specifically through the way of life that it introduced into our culture. Indeed, it is true to say that subsequent interpretations by theosophists of Hamlet or other works of art are very strongly reminiscent of certain essays which were written by Hans von Wolzogen, who was not a theosophist but a trained Wagnerian, in the Bayreuther Blätter. [ Note 1 ]
Thus one can say that Wagnerianism was the reason why many people, possessed of a homeless soul, became acquainted with a way of looking at the world which led away from crude materialism towards something spiritual; and all those who became part of such a current, not because of a superficial flirtation with the idea but because of an inner compulsion of the soul, wanted to develop their experience of a spiritual world because they felt this kind of inner longing. They were no longer concerned with certain evidence which underpinned the materialistic worldview. That was true irrespective of their position in life, whether they were lawyers or artists, cabinet ministers, officials, parliamentarians or whatever — even scientists.
As I said, such homeless souls can be found everywhere. But Wagnerianism provides a particularly characteristic example of the presence of very many such souls.
I then encountered several of those people, whose first spiritual taste had been the Wagnerian experience, in Vienna [ Note 2 ] in the late 1880s, in a group which consisted entirely of such homeless souls. People no longer really appreciate the way in which that homelessness was visible for anyone to see even then, because many of the things which at that time required a great deal of inner courage have today become commonplace.
For example, I do not believe that many people today could imagine the following. I was sitting in a circle of such homeless souls and all kinds of things had already been discussed. One person started to speak about Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov, [ Note 3 ] and spoke in such a manner that the group felt as if struck by lightning. A new world opened up: it was like suddenly finding oneself on a new planet. That is how these souls felt.
In all these observations of life which I am recounting by way of an introduction to the history of the anthroposophical movement, I never lost my connection with the spiritual world. It was always there. I mention this because it is the background against which I speak: the spiritual world accepted as self-evident, and human beings on earth perceived as images of their real existence as spiritual beings within the spiritual world. I was involved and came to know these people, not in order to observe them, but because that is how things naturally developed.
Having passed through their Wagnerian metamorphosis, they were involved in a second process of change. For example, there were among them three good acquaintances, intimate friends even, of H. P. Blavatsky, [ Note 4 ] who were keen theosophists in the way that theosophists were when Blavatsky was still alive. But a peculiar quality adhered to theosophists at that time, the period following the appearance of Blavatsky's Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine. They all had a desire to be extremely esoteric. They had nothing but contempt for their normal life, including, of course, their work. The exoteric life, however, was not something which could be avoided. That was accepted. But everything else was esoteric. In that setting you spoke only to fellow initiates, only within a small group. And those who were not considered worthy of talking to about such things were seen as people with whom one spoke about the ordinary things in life. It was with the former that you discussed esoteric matters. They were people who, although they might be engineers from the moment they stepped into practical life, would avidly read a book like Sinnett's Esoteric Buddhism. [ Note 5 ] These people possessed a certain urge — partly still as a result of their Wagnerian past — to explain from an esoteric perspective everything which existed as legend and myth.
But as more and more of these homeless souls began to appear at the end of the nineteenth century, it was possible to see how the most interesting among them were not those who studied the writings of Sinnett and Blavatsky — with at most a nine-tenths honest mind — but those who did not wish to read for themselves because there were still great inhibitions about such things at that time, and who listened with gaping mouths when those who had been reading expounded on these things. And it was most interesting to observe how the listeners, who were sometimes more honest than the narrators, grasped these ideas with their homeless souls as essential spiritual nourishment; spiritual nourishment which they were able to transform into something more honest through the greater honesty of their souls, despite the relative dishonesty with which it was being presented to them. One could see in them the yearning to hear something completely different from what was offered in the ordinary mainstream of civilization. How they devoured what they heard! It was most interesting to observe how on the one hand the tentacles of mainstream life kept drawing people in, and how on the other they would appear at one of the meeting places — often a coffee house — and would listen with great yearning. The point is that the honest souls, the ones who had been subject to the vagaries of life, were there too.
The way in which souls unwilling to admit to their homelessness were unable to find their bearings was particularly evident towards the latter part of the nineteenth century. A person might, for instance, listen with profound interest to an explanation of the physical, etheric and astral bodies, kama manas, manas, buddhi and so on. At the same time he was obliged to write the article his newspaper expected, including all the usual goodies. It really became clear how difficult it was for some people to leave the mainstream of life. For there were several among them who behaved as if they wanted to slink away, and would prefer that no one knew where they had gone when they wished to attend what was most important and interesting to them in life. It was indeed interesting how spiritual life, spiritual activity, the yearning for a spiritual world began particularly to establish itself in European civilization.
Now you have to remember that circumstances in the late 1880s were really much more difficult than today. Even if it was less harmful, it was nevertheless more difficult then to admit to the existence of a spiritual world, because the physical world of the senses with all its magnificent laws was proven of course! There was no way of getting round that! All the proofs were there in the physics laboratories and the hospitals; all the evidence declared in favour of a world for which there was proof. But the world which could be proven was so unsatisfactory for many homeless souls, was useless to the inner soul, to such an extent that many crept away from it. And at the same time as this great contemporary culture was on offer to them by the sackful — no, by the ton, in giant quantities — they took what nips they could from what has to be seen as the flow of the spiritual world into modern civilization. It was not at all easy to speak about the spiritual world; a suitable point of entry had to be found.
If I may once again introduce a personal note. I had to find a suitable opportunity on which to build. One could not simply crash in on our civilization with the spiritual world. Especially in the late 1880s, I linked the points I had to make about the spiritual world, about its more intimate aspects, in many places with Goethe's Fairy Tale of the Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily. [ Note 6 ] If one used something which had been created by no less a person than Goethe, and when it was as obvious as it is in the Fairy Tale that spiritual impulses had flowed into it, that was a suitable basis. I certainly could not use what was then being peddled as theosophy, what had been garnered from Blavatsky, from Sinnett's Esoteric Buddhism and similar books by a group of people who were undeniably hard-working. For someone who wanted to preserve his scientifically schooled thinking in the spiritual world this was simply impossible.
Neither was it easy in another respect. Why? Well, Sinnett's Esoteric Buddhism was soon recognized as the work of a spiritual dilettante, a compendium of old, badly understood esoteric bits and pieces. But it was less easy to find access to a phenomenon of the period such as Blavatsky's The Secret Doctrine. For this work did at least reveal in many places that much of its content had its origins in real, powerful impulses from the spiritual world. The book expressed a large number of ancient truths which had been gained through atavistic clairvoyance in distant ages of mankind. People thus encountered in the outside world, not from within themselves, something which could be described as an uncovering of a tremendous wealth of wisdom which mankind had once possessed as something exceptionally illuminating. This was interspersed with unbelievable passages which never ceased to amaze, because the book is a sloppy and dilettantish piece of work as regards any sort of methodology, and includes superstitious nonsense and much more. In short, Blavatsky's Secret Doctrine is a peculiar book: great truths side by side with terrible rubbish. One might almost say that it sums up very well the spiritual phenomena to which those who developed into the homeless souls of the modern age were subjected.
In the following period in Weimar [ Note 7 ] I was, of course, occupied intensively with other things, although even then there were numerous opportunities to observe such searching souls. For particularly during this time all kinds of people came to the town to visit the Goethe and Schiller archive. It was possible to become acquainted with the good and bad sides of their souls in a remarkable way. I got to know some strange people, as well as those who were highly cultivated, refined and distinguished. My description of meeting Herman Grimm, [ Note 8 ] for instance, appeared recently in Das Goetheanum. [ Note 9 ] One had a better understanding of Weimar when Herman Grimm was there.
We need only think of his novel Unüberwindliche Mächte [ Note 10 ] to see how Grimm also exhibited a strong drive for spiritual matters. If you read the end of his novel you can see how the spiritual world intermingles with the physical through the soul of a dying person. It is very moving, very magnificent. I have spoken about this in previous lectures. [ Note 11 ]
Of course some strange people also passed through Weimar. There was a Russian state councillor, for example. No one could discover quite what he was looking for: it was something or other in the second part of Goethe's Faust. Exactly how he hoped to achieve that through the Goethe archive was impossible to elicit. It was also hard to know what to do to help him. In the end he was simply left to continue his search. Next to him was a very intelligent American, who loved to sit on the floor with his legs crossed — a very peculiar sight. It was possible to see such cameos of contemporary life in their most real form.
When subsequently I went to Berlin, destiny once again introduced me to a group of homeless souls, and I became involved to such an extent that this group asked me to hold the lectures which have now been published in my Eleven European Mystics. [ Note 12 ] They were people who found their way into the Theosophical Society at a somewhat later date than my Viennese acquaintances. Only a few of them studied Blavatsky's Secret Doctrine. But these people were well-versed in what Blavatsky's successor, Annie Besant, [ Note 13 ] proclaimed as the theosophical ideas of the time.
So I found myself once again in a similar situation to the one in Vienna in the late 1880s, in which it was possible to observe such homeless souls. And anthroposophy at first grew up, one might say, together with — not in, but together with — homeless souls who had initially sought a new home in theosophy.
Tomorrow I will try to lead you further in this process of self-reflection which we have hardly begun today.
Continued in the next issue of SCR.
Thanks to The Rudolf Steiner Archive.