How can the psychological distress of today be overcome?Lecture by Rudolf Steiner October 1916 in Zurich, Switzerland, abridged
(as relevant now as it was then)
Note: Steiner describes the evolution of the earth in large rounds of incarnation and pralaya (rest) which he called Old Saturn, Old Sun and Old Moon and Earth. Within these there were seven smaller evolutionary periods, on Earth these are Polaria, Hyperborea, Lemuria, Atlantis and post-Atlantis, with three more to go in this round. Again, each of these periods are divided into seven epochs. We are in the 5th post-Atlantean period having lived through Ancient India, Ancient Persia, Ancient Egypt and the Greco-Roman age which ended around the beginning of the sixteenth century (each being app 2160 years in length). Each age furthers our maturing. In the Greco-Roman age what Steiner calls the ‘mind-soul’ or ‘intellectual soul’ developed. Now, in this age it is the ‘spiritual-soul’ or ‘consciousness-soul’ that we are to bring to birth.
Spiritual science is often taken to be abstract; a kind of remote study of little use or value for life. Yet in itself the science of the spirit is infinitely alive and meaningful for even the most external practical matters.
We know that before the fifteenth century people were greatly influenced by Greek and Roman impulses. Human life was very different in the age when the ‘mind-soul’ or ‘intellectual soul’ developed -- people were naturally endowed with inbred understanding and sensibility. As children grew up their natural understanding matured without the need for school learning. Failing to achieve this understanding was seen as a pathological condition. Similarly, people were endowed with a natural sensibility that streamed in a direct, heart-centered way from one to another. When people met they did not pass each other by with as little interest as often happens today. They knew how to relate without long exchanges of thoughts and feelings, working together for mutual benefit or for the benefit of the community. Since Greco-Roman times we have entered a epoch which will continue for many centuries. Today the world includes a quite different complex of feeling relationships from that of earlier times. We no longer receive a ready-made ‘mind-soul’ sensibility or understanding and often need a long time before really getting to know another person or before there is mutual confidence. Now it is our task to develop a new soul quality; the ‘spiritual soul’ or ‘consciousness soul’ which, rightly understood, will mark the whole goal and destiny of this present age. Through the ‘spiritual soul’ something much more separate and individual has to be developed, more adapted to egoism, to human solitude. Through the ‘spiritual soul’ we are becoming hermits wandering through the world within our own body. The art of printing, invented in the last epoch, has shaped our encounters in an impersonal way and will do so more and more. Modern communication gives access to one another such that relationships are formed at a moment’s notice but they cannot be beneficial because they are much less personal. This is the most important characteristic of our time. Human beings will shut themselves off within themselves which will make it harder to get to know and trust each other.
We have also entered a period which has brought to a certain culmination the development of karma by human beings from earlier times. Think how much less karma was gathered during the early period of earthly evolution. Then, every time we incarnated, new karma formed. At first human beings had to meet on earth without having been together before. Through the fact that we have incarnated so often we have gradually come to the point where, as a general rule, we don’t encounter anyone with whom we have not had some common experience in an earlier incarnation, even though it might seem to be a chance encounter.
For the spiritual soul to develop as it should, what happens outwardly between people is less important than what works within us, in our solitude. This requires a longer time than the previous immediate acquaintance based on collective natural capacities. Now human beings have to allow their common experiences with each other to arise within them like instinctive feelings. This is what is needed today: that we get to know one another and that our individualities rub each other into shape. Only when we form a relationship to someone from deep inside ourselves can the spiritual soul develop.
What I have described as applicable to our age, the ‘fifth post-Atlantean age’, is only in its beginnings. What has begun will become more and more widespread, more and more intensive. People brought together by karma will find it increasingly difficult to achieve a right relationship. It will require an inner exertion, inner activity. Perhaps because of other karmic relationships they will not have the strength to be aware on an instinctive level of all the connections existing from previous lives.
We meet and love one another: certain influences from earlier incarnations bring this about. But other forces work against this, as when a certain memory arises that separates us. Not only must those who meet in life test whether what arises in them is really sufficient for a lasting relationship; sons and daughters will find it more difficult to understand their fathers and mothers, parents will find it more difficult to understand their children, even brothers and sisters will fail to understand each other.
It will be necessary to understand this evolution clearly and not to wish for a dream existence in an obscure future. We must live through these trials so that evolution can take its course towards individual development. Certainly, if this negative side of our age were to appear alone, war and conflict would be the outcome, arising in all relationships, even the smallest. The remedy for this direction which human development must necessarily take is to increasingly awaken a social perception for everything that proceeds from the truly individual human essence.
When, over time, the science of the spirit moves away from abstractions and into concrete life, a special kind of awakening human interest will appear among circles of people who occupy themselves with such questions. Practical studies of the soul and life will be cultivated and a true social understanding of human evolution will be the result. Up to now only abstract ideas about the happiness of humanity and of nations or some kind of socialism have emerged. When the attempt is made to implement them it becomes clear that they cannot be carried out. What is important is not to begin founding societies or sects with definite programs, but to cultivate an understanding of human development from childhood on.
What kind of judgments do we form when we meet another person? Likes and dislikes tend to arise immediately. Usually it’s all a matter of prejudice. When we think people ought to behave in one way and then see them acting differently, we are quick to condemn. Unless prejudices and one’s own preferences can be overcome and people taken as they are, no progress can be made in real practical knowledge of human beings.
Likes and dislikes are great enemies of social interest. Teachers are a tragedy if they straight away find one of their pupils likable and another not instead of taking each as they are and making the best of them. This is a concern within our institutions. They and their social laws often have a destructive effect. These things will increase and we will be tested where we encounter the forces of opposition. Only in a conscious struggle against superficial likes and dislikes will the spiritual soul be born in the right way.
Social understanding will also be stifled by the nationalistic feelings which have come to dominate life in the form they appear since the nineteenth century. These feelings are thoroughly opposed to social understanding, to a real interest between people. Opposition between nations, likes and dislikes on a national scale as they are today, are a great and terrible test for humanity and mankind’s salvation can lie only in overcoming them. Nationalistic feelings have the tendency to prevent a person becoming independent, making him a mere echo or image of the qualities of this or that group or nation.
Finally: Early forms of Christianity were practiced according to the needs of Greek and Roman culture. They have been carried over and will become more and more unfit as freedom of thought grows. Religious life will wither if it does not adapt itself but rather remains in the forms of the preceding age. Consciously or subconsciously we all carry Christ within us but he must be understood anew. That does not happen by forcing fixed and frozen dogma on people but by attempting everything that can make Christ comprehensible. Religious understanding must be developed in a many-sided way out of one’s own personal inner experience. Tolerance must arise for the thoughts in which religious experience is expressed. We must attempt to make the essence of other religions comprehensible to bring about understanding for the different ways in which Christ can be experienced.
In the realm of human relationships: social understanding
In the realm of religion, freedom of thought
At the time when the first seeds of thought freedom quickened, powers of opposition began to work in what can be called the orthodoxy of various religions. The aim of the opposition was and still is to oppose freedom of thought in the strongest possible way. It will become increasingly important to overcome this hindrance but we are faced with a trial which to begin with, feels very uncomfortable. It is a conflict between independent thought and faith in authority which works over from the past. There is tendency not to see the intensity of this faith in authority; to have illusions about it because in our time faith in authority has grown tremendous. Under its influence people have become helpless at forming judgments. In the older epoch we were given healthy understanding as a natural gift; now we must achieve it through our own development and in this we are held back, tied up entirely, by our faith in authority.
Consider how people behave compared to animals who do not possess reason. How well an animal is equipped with instincts that lead it from a condition of illness into full health again! How much prevents us from being proactive in such matters. We don’t find it easy to form a judgment about healthy conditions of life and so we submit entirely to authority. In the fields of medicine, law and every other field we are prepared to declare ourselves unqualified and to simply accept what science says. Modern life is so complicated that this is quite understandable. But under the powerful influence of authority people tend to become increasingly helpless. Developing the power of authority and the mood of acceptance which accompanies it is really a principle of organized religion but that is only a special form of what is achieved in other realms where it is not so noticeable. We see how in medicine a form of orthodoxy arises which hardly differs from dogmatic religion. We see how the attempt is made to increase the physician’s power. And that is the essence of ‘Jesuitical’ ambitions in other fields as well. This will become stronger. Human beings will be more and more bound by the decisions of authority. The salvation of our period will consist in the right of the spiritual soul to assert itself against such Ahrimanic resistance, for this is what it is.
Thus we see ‘social understanding’ and ‘freedom of thought’ meeting the strongest opposition. And it is not even understood that this opposition exists, for in widespread circles it is simply regarded as the right thing which should not be opposed but should be specially furthered!
The new way of working in the world will have to be won consciously from the heart’s blood.Estrangement from one another will happen of its own accord, so what flows from the human heart has to be sought consciously. Every individual soul in the fifth post-Atlantean period has to bear difficulties, for only in the overcoming of these difficulties will those trials come about through which the spiritual soul can develop.
Nowadays many people say: ‘I have no sense for what I should make of myself, I don’t know how to place myself in life’. This is because they haven’t yet found the right possibility of thinking clearly about the needs of the present age and their relationship to them. Such situations can even lead to physical illness and loss of resistance. The danger of acute soul distress as described here will spread dangerously over humanity. Many people long for social understanding and freedom of thought but very few are inclined to turn to the right avenues of help. Theoretical programs are the nemesis of the age. How much is written today about how to treat young people! What detailed theories are thought out that don’t deal with the real necessity. The study of life is needed and the will to understand life. Hopefully in the course of time there will be opportunities for widespread understanding of that which now exists only in limited circles.
Of course a reasonable objection can be raised: We cannot all learn to form judgments about everything. Think what has to be learned in order to become a physician. We cannot all learn it and in addition learn what is acquired by a lawyer and then what has to be learned by a painter as well! We cannot do that! Certainly we cannot, but we don’t need to be creators in these fields; we need only to be capable of judgment. We must indeed be able to let the authority do its work and yet be in a position to form a judgment about it. The science of spirit must become a central kind of knowledge, giving information about the connections of human development and cultivating a healthy power of understanding through depth of thought. Mysterious powers dwell in the human soul, powers that relate to the ancient Mysteries, which join the soul to the spiritual world. This link will enable us to to be capable of judgment.
In the science of the spirit we hear about a real spiritual world and about elemental beings which surround us. We hear about the Hierarchies, angels, archangels and so on. The world becomes inhabited for us with tangible spiritual content, with spiritual powers and spiritual beings. It is not a matter of indifference to these beings living in the spiritual world that we know about them! It is as if they were deprived of spiritual nourishment when people here on earth know nothing about them. The spiritual world is in close connection with this earthly physical world. You will understand this best when I say something to you which will perhaps seem paradoxical but which is simply true. And although one cannot say much yet, certain truths must today be spoken because we should not live without them.
For us it is right to say: with the Mystery of Golgotha (at the crucifixion and beyond) Christ entered earthly life and since then is present here. From a certain point of view it can be felt as a source of happiness for earthly life, that Christ has entered into it. But if one puts oneself into the point of view of the angels (and this is no invention of mine for it is found as something quite real by the true spiritual researcher) the angels in their spiritual sphere experience it differently. They experience that through the Mystery of Golgotha Christ has departed from their world. They have reason to be sad (just as we can feel it for our salvation) that Christ came to us.
This sequence of thought is real and one who truly understands the spiritual world knows that there is only one salvation for the angels and that is that we, in our physical bodies, so live with the thought of Christ that the thought of it shines up as a light to the angels. We say: Christ has entered our being and we can develop ourselves in such a way that he lives within us -- ‘not I but the Christ in me’. But the angels say: for our realm Christ has departed from our inner being and shines up to us like many stars in the Christ-filled thought of individuals; there we recognize him again, from thence he shines up to us since the Mystery of Golgotha. It is a real relationship between the spiritual world and the human world.
This real relationship is expressed in another way as well. The spiritual beings inhabiting the spiritual world look with happiness and satisfaction and recognition at the thoughts which we form about their world. They can only help us when we are able to form thoughts about them even thought we have not yet reached clairvoyance. They can help us if we know about them. In return, help reaches us from the spiritual world. We are not simply helped by the things we learn, we are helped by the beings of the higher hierarchies themselves when we know about them.
As our epoch continues and we have to confront authority it will be for our benefit if we do not have behind us merely our human understanding, but that understanding as well which the spiritual beings can bring about if we know about them. They give us the capacity to form judgments about authority. The spiritual world helps us. We need it; we must know about it, we must receive it into conscious understanding. That is the third thing which must come about.
Achievement of Freedom of Thought
Living Knowledge about the Spiritual World.