World History in the Light of Anthroposophy
and as a Foundation for Knowledge of the Human Spirit
24 December 1923, Dornach
In the evening hours of our Christmas Gathering, 1Die Weihnachtstagung zur Begründung der Allgemeinen Anthroposophischen Gesellschaft. Jahresausklang und Jahreswende 1923/24 by Rudolf Steiner, Collected Works, Dornach 1962. I should like to give you a kind of survey of human evolution on the earth, that may help us to become more intimately conscious of the nature and being of present-day man. For at this time in man's history, when we can see already in preparation events of extraordinary importance for the whole civilisation of humanity, every thinking man must be inclined to ask: ‘How has the present configuration, the present make-up of the human soul arisen? How has it come about through the long course of evolution?’ For it cannot be denied that the present only becomes comprehensible as we try to understand its origin in the past.
The present age is however one that is peculiarly prejudiced in its thought about the evolution of man and of mankind. It is commonly believed that, as regards his life of soul and spirit, man has always been essentially the same as he is to-day throughout the whole of the time that we call history. True, in respect of knowledge, it is imagined that in ancient times human beings were childlike, that they believed in all kinds of fancies, and that man has only really become clever in the scientific sense in modern times; but if we look away from the actual sphere of knowledge, it is generally held that the soul-constitution which man has to-day was also possessed by the ancient Greek and by the ancient Oriental. Even though it be admitted that modifications may have occurred in detail, yet on the whole it is supposed that throughout the historical period everything in the life of the soul has been as it is to-day. Then we go on to assume a prehistoric life of man, and say that nothing is really known of this. Going still further back, we picture man in a kind of animal form. Thus, in the first place, as we trace back in historical time, we see a soul-life undergoing comparatively little change. Then the picture disappears in a kind of cloud, and before that again we see man in his animal imperfection as a kind of higher ape-being. Such is approximately the usual conception of to-day.
Now all this rests on an extraordinary prejudice, for in forming such a conception, we do not take the trouble to observe the important differences that exist in the soul-constitution of a man of the present-time, as compared even with that of a relatively not very far distant past, — say, of the 11th, 10th, or 9th century A.D. The difference goes deeper when we compare the constitution of soul in the human being of to-day and in a contemporary of the Mystery of Golgotha, or in a Greek; while if we go over to the ancient Oriental world of which the Greek civilisation was, in a sense, a kind of colony, we find there a disposition of soul utterly different from that of the man of to-day. I should like to show you from real instances how man lived in the East, let us say, ten thousand, or fifteen thousand years ago, and how different he was in nature from the Greek, and how still more different from what we ourselves are.
Let us first call to mind our own soul-life. I will take an example from it. We have a certain experience; and of this experience, in which we take part through our senses, or through our personality in some other way, we form an idea, a concept, and we retain this idea in our thought. After a certain time the idea may arise again out of our thought into our conscious soul-life, as memory. You have perhaps to-day a memory-experience that leads you back to experiences in perception of some ten years ago. Now try and understand exactly what that really means. Ten years ago you experienced something. Ten years ago you may have visited a gathering of men and women. You formed an idea of each one of these persons, of their appearance and so on. You experienced what they said to you, and what you did in common with them. All that, in the form of pictures, may arise before you to-day. It is an inner soul-picture that is present within you, connected with the event which occurred ten years ago. Now not only according to Science, but according to a general feeling, — which is, of course, experienced by man to-day in an extremely weak form, but which nevertheless is experienced, — according to this general feeling man localises such a memory-concept which brings back a past experience, in his head. He says: — ‘What lives as the memory of an experience is present in my head.’
Now let us jump a long way back in human evolution, and consider the early population of the Orient, of which the Chinese and Indians as we know them in history were only the late descendants: that is, let us go back really thousands of years. Then, if we contemplate a human being of that ancient epoch, we find that he did not live in such a way as to say: ‘I have in my head the memory of something I have experienced, something I have undergone, in external life.’ He had no such inner feeling or experience; it simply did not exist for him. His head was not filled with thoughts and ideas. The present-day man thinks in his superficial way that as we to-day have ideas, thoughts, and concepts, so human beings always possessed these, as far back as history records; but that is not the case. If with spiritual insight we go back far enough, we meet with human beings who did not have ideas, concepts, thoughts at all in their head, who did not experience any such abstract content of the head, but, strange as it may seem, experienced the whole head; they perceived and felt their whole head. These men did not give themselves up to abstractions as we do. To experience ideas in the head was something quite foreign to them, but they knew how to experience their own head. And as you, when you have a memory-picture, refer the memory-picture to an experience, as a relationship exists between your memory-picture and the experience, similarly these men related the experience of their head to the Earth, to the whole Earth. They said: — ‘There exists in the Cosmos the Earth. And there exists in the Cosmos I myself, and as a part of me, my head; and the head which I carry on my shoulders is the cosmic memory of the Earth. The Earth existed earlier; my head later. That I have a head is due to the memory, the cosmic memory of earthly existence. The earthly existence is always there. But the whole configuration, the whole shape of the human head, is in relation to the whole Earth.’ Thus an ancient Eastern felt in his own head the being of the Earth-planet itself. He said: ‘Out of the whole great cosmic existence the Gods have created, have generated the Earth with its kingdoms of Nature, the Earth
with its rivers and mountains. I carry on my shoulders my head; and this head of mine is a true picture of the Earth. This head, with the blood flowing in it, is a true picture of the Earth with the land and water coursing over it. The configuration of mountains on the Earth repeats itself in my head in the configurations of my brain; I carry on my shoulders my own image of the Earth-planet.’ Exactly as our modern man refers his memory-picture to his experience, so did the man of old refer his entire head to the Earth-planet. A considerable difference in inner perception!
Further, when we consider the periphery of the Earth, and fit it, as it were, into our vision of things, we feel this air surrounding the Earth as air permeated by the Sun's warmth and light; and in a certain sense, we can say: ‘The Sun lives in the atmosphere of the Earth.’ The Earth opens herself to the Cosmic universe; the activities that come forth from herself she yields up to the encircling atmosphere, and opens herself to receive the activities of the Sun. Now each human being, in those ancient times, experienced the region of the Earth on which he lived as of peculiar importance. An ancient Eastern would feel some portion of the surface of the Earth as his own; beneath him the earth, and above him the encircling atmosphere turned towards the Sun. The rest of the Earth that lay to left and right, in front and behind — all the rest of the Earth merged into a general whole.
Thus if an ancient Oriental lived, for example, on Indian soil, he experienced the Indian soil as especially important for him; but everything else on the Earth, East, West, South of him, disappeared into the whole. He did not concern himself much with the way in which the Earth in these other parts was bounded by the rest of Cosmic space; while on the other hand not only was the soil on which he lived something important, but the extension of the Earth into Cosmic space in this region became a matter of great moment to him. The way in which he was able to breathe on this particular soil was felt by him as an inner experience of special importance.
To-day we are not in the habit of asking, how does one breathe in this or that place? We are of course still subject to favourable or unfavourable conditions for breathing, but we are no longer so conscious of the fact. For an ancient Oriental this was different. The way in which he was able to breathe was for him a very deep experience, and so were many other things too that depend on the character of the Earth's relation and contact with cosmic space. All that goes to make up the Earth, the whole Earth, was felt by the human being of those early times as that which lived in his head.
Now the head is enclosed by the hard firm bones of the skull, it is shut in above, on two sides and behind. But it has certain exits; it has a free opening downwards towards the chest. And it was of special importance for the man of olden time to feel how the head opens with relative freedom in the direction of the chest. (See Drawing). And as he had to feel the inner configuration of the head as an image of the Earth, so he had to bring the environment of the Earth, all that is above and around the Earth, into connection with the opening downwards, the turning towards the heart. In this he saw an image of how the Earth opens to the Cosmos. It was a mighty experience for a man of those ancient times when he said: ‘In my head I feel the whole Earth. But this Earth opens to my chest which carries within it my heart. And that which takes place between head, chest and heart is an image of what is borne out from my life into the Cosmos, borne out to the surrounding atmosphere that is open to the Sun.’
A great experience it was for him, and one of deep meaning, when he was able to say: ‘Here in my head lives the Earth. When I go deeper, there the Earth is turning towards the Sun; my heart is the image of the Sun.’ In this way did the man of olden times attain what corresponds to our life of feeling.
We have the abstract life of feeling still. But who of us knows anything directly of his heart? Through anatomy and physiology, we think we know something, but it is about as much as we know of some papier-mâché model of the heart that we may have before us. On the other hand, what we have as a feeling-experience of the world, that the man of olden times did not have. In place of it he had the experience of his heart. Just as we relate our feeling to the world in which we live, just as we feel whether we love a man or meet him with antipathy, whether we like this or that flower, whether we incline towards this or that, just as we relate our feelings to the world — but to a world torn out, as it were, in airy abstraction, from the solid, firm Cosmos — in the same way did the ancient Oriental relate his heart to the Cosmos, that is, to that which goes away from the Earth in the direction of the Sun.
Again, we say to-day: I will walk. We know that our will lives in our limbs. The ancient man of the East had an essentially different experience. What we call ‘will’ was quite unknown to him. We judge quite wrongly when we believe that what we call thinking, feeling and willing were present among the ancient Eastern races. It was not at all the case. They had head experiences, which were Earth experiences. They had chest or heart experiences, which were experiences of the environment of the Earth as far out as the Sun. The Sun corresponds to the heart experience. Then they had a further experience, a feeling of expanding and stretching out into their limbs. They became conscious and aware of their own humanity in the movement of their legs and feet, or of their arms and hands. They themselves were within the movements. And in this expansion of the inner being into the limbs, they felt a direct picture of their connection with the starry worlds. (See Drawing). ‘In my head I have a picture of the Earth. Where my head opens freely downwards into the chest and reaches down to my heart, I have a picture of what lives in the Earth's environment. In what I experience as the forces of my arms and hands, of my feet and legs, I have something which represents the relation the Earth bears to the stars that live far out there in cosmic space.’
When therefore man wanted to express the experience he had as ‘willing’ human being — to use the language of to-day, — he did not say: I walk. We can see that from the very words that he used. Nor did he say: I sit down. If we investigate the ancient languages in respect of their finer content, we find everywhere that for the action which we describe by saying: I walk, the ancient Oriental would have said: Mars impels me, Mars is active in me. Going forward was felt as a Mars impulse in the legs.
Grasping hold of something, feeling and touching with the hands, was expressed by saying: Venus works in me. Pointing out something to another person was expressed by saying: Mercury works in me. Even when a rude person called some one's attention by giving him a push or a kick, the action would be described by saying: Mercury was working in that person. Sitting down was a Jupiter activity, and lying down, whether for rest or from sheer laziness, was expressed by saying: I give myself over to the impulses of Saturn. Thus man felt in his limbs the wide spaces of the Cosmos out beyond. He knew that when he went away from the Earth out into cosmic space, he came into the Earth's environment and then into the starry spheres. If he went downwards from his head, he passed through the very same experience, only this time within his own being. In his head he was in the Earth, in his chest and heart he was in the environment of the Earth, in his limbs he was in the starry Cosmos beyond.
From a certain point of view such an experience is perfectly possible for man. Alas for us, poor men of to-day, who can experience only abstract thoughts! What are these in reality, for the most part? We are very proud of them, but we quite forget what is far beyond the cleverest of them, — our head; our head is much more rich in content than the very cleverest of our abstract thoughts. Anatomy and physiology know little of the marvel and mystery of the convolutions of the brain, but one single convolution of the brain is more majestic and more powerful than the abstract knowledge of the greatest genius. There was once a time on the Earth when man was not merely conscious as we are of thoughts lying around, so to speak, but was conscious of his own head; he felt the head as the image of the Earth, and he felt this or that part of the head — let us say, the optic thalamus or the corpora quadrigemina — as the image of a certain, physical mountainous configuration of the Earth. He did not then merely relate his heart to the Sun in accordance with some abstract theory, he felt: ‘My head stands in the same relation to my chest, to my heart, as the Earth does to the Sun.’ That was the time when man had grown together, in his whole life, with the Cosmic Universe; he had become one with the Cosmos. And this found expression in his whole life.
Through the fact that we to-day put our puny thinking in the place of our head, through this very fact we are able to have a conceptual memory, we are able to remember things in thought. We form pictures in thought of what we have experienced as abstract memories in our head. That could not be done by a man of olden times who did not have thoughts, but still had his head. He could not form memory pictures. And so, in those regions of the Ancient East where people were still conscious of their head, but had as yet no thoughts and hence no memories, we find developed to a remarkable degree something of which people are again beginning to feel the need to-day. For a long time such a thing has not been necessary, and if to-day the need for it is returning it is due to what I can only call slovenliness of soul.
If in that time of which I have spoken one were to enter the region inhabited by people who were still conscious of their head, chest, heart and limbs, one would see on every hand small pegs placed in the earth and marked with some sign. Or here and there a sign made upon a wall. Such memorials were to be found scattered over all inhabited regions. Wherever anything happened, a man would set up some kind of memorial, and when he came back to the place, he lived through the event over again in the memorial he had made. Man had grown together with the earth, he had become one with it with his head. To-day he merely makes a note of some event in his head. As I have pointed out already, we are beginning once more to find it necessary to make notes not only in our head but also in a note-book; this is due as I said, to slovenliness of soul, but we shall nevertheless require to do it more and more. At that time however there was no such thing as making notes even in one's head, because thoughts and ideas were simply nonexistent. Instead, the land was dotted over with signs. And from this habit, so naturally acquired by men in olden times, has arisen the whole custom of making monuments and memorials.
Everything that has happened in the historical evolution of mankind has its origin and cause in the inner being of man. If we were but honest, we should have to admit that we modern men have not the faintest knowledge of the deeper basis of this custom of erecting memorials. We set them up from habit. They are however the relics of the ancient monuments and signs put up by man in a time when he had no memory such as we have to-day but was taught, in any place where he had some experience, there to set up a memorial, so that when he came that way again he might re-experience the event in his head; for the head can call up again everything that has connection with the earth. ‘We give over to the earth what our head has experienced’ — was a principle of olden times.
And so we have to point to a very early time in the ancient East, the epoch of localised memory, when everything of the nature of memory was connected with the setting up of signs and memorials on the earth. Memory was not within, but without. Everywhere were memorial tablets and memorial stones. It was localised memory, a remembering connected with place.
Even to-day it is still of no small value for a man's spiritual evolution that he should sometimes make use of his capacity for this kind of memory, for a memory that is not within him but is unfolded in connection with the outer world. It is good sometimes to say: I will not remember this or that, but I will set here or there a sign, or token; or, I will let my soul unfold an experience about certain things, only in connection with signs or tokens. I will, for instance, hang a picture of the Madonna in a corner of my room, and when the picture is before me, I will experience in my soul all that I can experience by turning with my whole soul to the Madonna. For there is a subtle relation to a thing belonging so intimately to the home as does the picture of the Madonna that we meet with in the homes of the people, when we go a little way eastwards in Europe; we have not even to go as far as Russia, we find them everywhere in Central Europe. All experience of this nature is in reality a relic of the epoch of localised memory. The memory is outside, it attaches to the place.
A second stage is reached when man passes from localised to rhythmic memory. Thus we have first, localised memory; and secondly, rhythmic memory.
We have now come to the time when, not from any conscious, subtle finesse, but right out of his own inner being, man had developed the need of living in rhythm. He felt a need so to reproduce, within himself, what he heard that a rhythm was formed. If his experience of a cow, for instance, suggested ‘moo,’ he did not simply call her ‘moo,’ but ‘moo-moo,’ — perhaps, in very ancient times, ‘moo-moo-moo.’ That is to say, the perception was as it were piled up in repetition, so as to produce rhythm. You can follow the same process in the formation of many words to-day; and you can observe how little children still feel the need of these repetitions. We have here again a heritage come down from the time when rhythmic memory prevailed, the time when man had no memory at all of what he had merely experienced, but only of what he experienced in rhythmic form, — in repetitions, in rhythmic repetition. There had to be at any rate some similarity between a sequence of words. ‘Might and main,’ ‘stock and stone’ — such setting of experience in rhythmic sequence is a last relic of an extreme longing to bring everything into rhythm; for in this second epoch, that followed the epoch of localised memory, what was not set into rhythm was not retained. It is from this rhythmic memory that the whole ancient art of verse developed — indeed all metrical poetry.
Only in the third stage does that develop which we still know to-day, — temporal memory, when we no longer have a point in space to which memory attaches, nor are any longer dependent on rhythm, but when that which is inserted into the course of time can be evoked again later. This quite abstract memory of ours is the third stage in the evolution of memory.
Let us now call to mind the point of time in human evolution when rhythmic memory passes over into temporal memory, when that memory first made its appearance which we with our lamentable abstractness of thought take entirely as a matter of course; the memory whereby we evoke some-thing in picture-form, no longer needing to make use of semi-conscious or unconscious rhythmic repetitions in order to call it up again.
The epoch of the transition from rhythmic memory to temporal memory is the time when the ancient East was sending colonies to Greece, — the beginning of the colonies planted from Asia in Europe. When the Greeks relate stories of the heroes who came over from Asia and Egypt to settle on Grecian soil, they are in reality relating how the great heroes went forth from the land of rhythmic memory to seek a climate where rhythmic memory could pass over into temporal memory, into a remembering in time.
We are thus able to define quite exactly the time in history when this transition took place, — namely, the time of the rise of Greece. For that which may be called the Motherland of Greece was the home of a people with strongly developed rhythmic memory. There rhythm lived. The ancient East is indeed only rightly understood when we see it as the land of rhythm. And if we place Paradise only so far back as the Bible places it, if we lay the scene of Paradise in Asia, then we have to see it as a land where purest rhythms resounded through the Cosmos and awoke again in man as rhythmic memory, — a land where man lived not only as experiencing rhythm in a Cosmos, but as himself a creator of rhythm.
Listen to the Bhagavad-Gita and you will catch the after-echo of that mighty rhythm that once lived in the experience of man. You will hear its echo also in the Vedas, and you will even hear it in the poetry and literature — to use a modern word — of Western Asia. In all these live the echoes of that rhythm which once filled the whole of Asia with majestic content and, bearing within it the mysteries of the environment of the Earth, made these resound again in the human breast, in the beat of the human heart. Then we come to a still more ancient time, when rhythmic memory leads back into localised memory, when man did not even have rhythmic memories but was taught, in the place where he had had an experience, there to erect a memorial. When he was away from the place, he needed no memorial; but when he came thither again he had to recall the experience. Yet it was not he who recalled it to himself; the memorial, the very Earth, recalled it to him. As the head is the image of the Earth, so for the man of localised memory the memorial in the Earth evoked its own image in the head. Man lived completely with the Earth; in his connection with the Earth he had his memory.
The Gospels contain a passage that recalls this kind of memory, where we are told that Christ wrote something in the Earth.
The period we have thus defined as the transition from localised memory to rhythmic memory is the time when ancient Atlantis was declining and the first Post-Atlantean peoples were wandering eastward in the direction of Asia. For we have first the wanderings from ancient Atlantis — the continent that to-day forms the bed of the Atlantic Ocean — right across Europe into Asia, and later the wanderings back again from Asia into Europe. The migration of the Atlantean peoples to Asia marks the transition from localised memory to rhythmic memory, which latter finds its completion in the spiritual life of Asia. The colonisation of Greece marks the transition from rhythmic memory to temporal memory — the memory that we still carry within us to-day.
- Localised Memory.
- Rhythmic Memory.
- Temporal Memory.
And within this evolution of memory lies the whole development of civilisation between the Atlantean catastrophe and the rise of Greece, — all that resounds to us from ancient Asia, coming to us in the form of legend and saga rather than as history. We shall arrive at no understanding of the evolution of humanity on the Earth by looking principally to the external phenomena, by investigating the external documents; rather do we need to fix our attention on the evolution of what is within man; we must consider how such a thing as the faculty of memory has developed, passing in its development from without into the inner being of man.
You know how much the power of memory means for the man of to-day. You will have heard of persons who through some condition of illness suddenly find that a portion of their past life, which they ought to remember quite easily, has been completely wiped out. A terrible experience of this kind befell a friend of mine before his death. One day he left his home, bought a ticket at the railway station for a certain place, alighted there and bought another ticket. He did all this, having lost for the time the memory of his life up to the moment of buying the ticket. He carried everything out quite sensibly. His reason was sound. But his memory was blotted out. And he found himself, when his memory came back, in a Casual Ward in Berlin. It was afterwards proved that in the interval he had wandered over half Europe, without being able to connect the experience with the earlier experiences of his life. Memory did not re-awaken in him till he had found his way — he himself did not know how — into a Casual Ward in Berlin.
This is only one of countless cases which we meet with in life and which show us how the soul-life of the man of to-day is not intact unless the threads of memory are able to reach back unbroken to a certain period after birth.
With the men of olden time who had developed a localised memory, this was not the case. They knew nothing of these threads of memory. They, on the other hand, would have been unhappy in their soul-life, they would have felt as we feel when something robs us of our self, if they had not been surrounded by memorials which recalled to them what they had experienced; and not alone by memorials which they themselves had set up, but memorials too erected by their forefathers, or by their brothers and sisters, similar in configuration to their own and bringing them into contact with their own kinsmen. Whereas we are conscious of something inward as the condition for keeping our Self intact, for these men of bygone times the condition was to be sought outside themselves — in the world without.
We have to let the whole picture of this change in man's soul pass before our eyes in order to realise its significance in the history of man's evolution. It is by observing such things as these that light begins to be thrown upon history. To-day I wanted to show, by a special example, how man's mind and soul have evolved in respect of one faculty — the faculty of memory. We shall go on to see in the course of the succeeding lectures how the events of history begin to reveal themselves in their true shape when we can thus illumine them with light derived from knowledge of the human soul.