1739

The History and Actuality of Imperialism


Rudolf Steiner


Lecture 3 of 3 – Dornach, February 22, 1920


Unabridged translation: Frank Thomas Smith


When you consider what has been said here during the past two days you will see that what belongs to the essence of imperialism is that in an imperialistic community something that was felt to be part of a mission – not necessarily justified, but understandable – later continued on as an automatism, so to speak. In the history of human development things are retained – simply due to indolence – which were once justified or explicable, but no longer are.

If a community is obliged to defend itself for a period of time, then it is surely justified to create certain professions for that purpose: police and military professions. But when the danger against which defense was necessary no longer exists, the professions continue to exist. The people involved must remain. They want to continue to exercise their professions and therefore we have something which is no longer justified by the circumstances. Something develops which, although perhaps originating due to the necessity for defense, takes on an aggressive character. It is so with all empires, except the original imperialism of the first human societies, of which I spoke yesterday, in which the people's mentality considered the ruler to be a god and thus justified in expanding his domain as far as possible. This justification was no longer there in all the subsequent empires.

Let us now consider once again from definite viewpoints what is apparent in the historical evolution of mankind. We find that in the oldest times the will of the individual who was seen as divine was the indisputable power factor. In public life there was in reality nothing to discuss in such empires; but this impossibility of discussion was grounded in the fact that a god in human form walked the earth as the ruler. That was, if I may say so, a secure foundation for public affairs.

Gradually all that which was based on divine will and was thus secure passed over to the second stage. In that stage the things which can be observed in physical life, be they persons, be they the persons' insignias, be they the deeds of the governing or ruling persons, it was all symbols, signs. Whereas during the first phase of imperialism here in the physical world the spirit was considered directly present, during the second stage everything physical was thought of as a reflection, as an image, as a symbol for what is not actually present in the physical world, but only illustrated by the persons and deeds in the physical world.

Such times, when the second stage appeared, was when it first occurred to people that a possibility for discussion of public affairs was possible. What we today call rights can hardly be considered as existing during the first stage. And the only political institution worth mentioning was the phenomenon of divine power exercised by physical people. In social affairs the only thing that mattered was the concrete will of a physical person. To try to judge whether this will was justified or not makes no sense. It was just there. It had to be obeyed. To discuss whether the god in human form should or should not do this or that made no sense. In fact it was not done during those times when the conditions I have described really existed. But if one only saw an image of the spiritual world in physical institutions, if one spoke of what Saint Augustine called the “City of God” - that is, the state which exists here on earth, but which is really an image of heavenly facts and personalities, then one can hold the opinion that what the person does who is a divine image is right, is a true image: someone else could object and say that it is not a true image. That's when the possibility of discussion originated. The person of today, because he is accustomed to criticize everything, to discuss everything, thinks that to criticize and discuss was always present in human history. That is not true. Discussing and criticizing are attributes of the second stage, which I have described for you. Thus began the possibility to judge on one's own, that is, to add a predicate to a subject. In the oldest forms of human expression this personal judging was not at all present in respect to public affairs. During the second stage what we call today parliament for example was in preparation; for a parliament only makes sense when it is possible to discuss public affairs. Therefore, even the most primitive form of public discourse was a characteristic of the second stage.

Today we live in the third stage, insofar as the characteristic form of the western countries more or less spreads over the world. This is the stage of platitudes. This stage of platitudes, as I characterized it to you yesterday, is the one in which the inner substance has also disappeared from discussion and therefore everyone can be right, or at least think that they are right, when it can't be proved that they are wrong, because basically within the world of platitudes everything can be affirmed. Nevertheless, previous stages are always retained within the next stages. Therefore the inner impulse to imperialism exists. People observe things very superficially. When the previous German kaiser wrote in a book that was opened out to write in: “The king's will is sublime law” – what did it mean? It meant that he expressed himself in the age of platitudes in a manner that only had meaning for the first stage. In the first stage it was really the case that the ruler's will was highest law. The concept of rights, which includes the right of free speech, and involves lawyers and courts, is essentially a characteristic of the second stage, and can only be grasped in its reality from the viewpoint of the second stage. Whoever has followed how much discussion has taken place about the origin and character of rights will have noticed that there is something shimmering in the rights concept as such, because it is applicable to the symbolic stage, where the spiritual shimmers through the material, shines, so that when only the external signs, the legal aspects and words appear, one can argue and discuss what are rights and the legal system in public discourse.

In the age of the platitudes, however, understanding of what is necessary for rights in society is completely lost: that the spiritual kingdom shines through into the physical kingdom. And then one arrives at such definitions as I described yesterday using the example of Woodrow Wilson. I will now read to you a definition of the law that Woodrow Wilson gave so you can see how this definition consists of nothing but platitudes. He said: “The law is the will of the state in respect to those citizens who are bound by it.” So the state unfolds a will! One can well imagine that someone who is embedded so strongly in abstract idealism, not to mention materialism – for they are practically the same – can claim that the state is supposed to have a will. He would have to have lost all sense of reality to even conceive of such a thing let alone write it down. But it is in the book I spoke to you about yesterday – the codex of platitudes: The State, Elements of Historical and Practical Politics.

There are other interesting things in it. Only in parenthesis I would like to draw your attention to what Wilson says in this book about the German Empire after he describes how the efforts to found it were finally successful in 1870/71. He describes this with the following sentences: “The final incentive for achievement of complete national unity was brought about by the German-French war of 1870/71. Prussia's brilliant success in this struggle, fought in the interest of German patriotism against French impertinence, caused the cool restraint of the central states towards their powerful neighbor in the north to end; they united with the rest of Germany and the German Empire was founded in the royal palace at Versailles on January 18, 1871.“ The same man wrote that who a short time later in Versailles united with those whose impertinence had once been the motivation for the founding of the German Empire. Much of present day public opinion derives from the fact that people are so terribly superficial and pay no attention to the facts. If you decide to decide according to objective information, then things look quite different from what is propounded in public and accepted by thousands upon thousands of people. It wouldn't have hurt one bit if when Woodrow Wilson arrived in Paris in glory, praised from all sides, if these remarks had been held up to him. That is what must be striven for, to take the facts into account, which means also the truth.

So the second stage is when discussion arises, which is what makes the civil rights concept possible. The third stage is when economic life is the essential reality. And yesterday we showed how this [present] age of platitudes is absolutely necessary in the course of historical evolution in order that the platitude, which is empty, can open people's eyes to the fact that the only reality is economic life and how it is therefore so necessary to propagate spirituality, the new spirituality in the world.

People have quite a skimpy idea about this new spiritual life. And it is therefore understandable that it is burdened with the most ridiculous misunderstandings. For this new spirituality must penetrate into the depths of human life. And although those secret societies, about which I spoke yesterday, only traditionally preserve the old forms, the slogan “brothers”, meaning not to let social class or an individual's religion play a part in the lodges, in a certain sense does prepare for it in the right way.

We say today – I beg you to pay special attention to this, let's take something quite banal, quite common: “The tree is green”. This is a manner of speaking which is common to the second stage of human development. Perhaps you will understand me better if you imagine that we try to paint this opinion – that “the tree is green”. You cannot paint it! There will be some white surface and green will be added, but nothing about the tree has been painted. And when something of the tree is painted which isn't green all you do is disturb the effect even more. If you try to paint “The tree is green”, you are painting something dead. The way we combine subject and predicate in our speech is only useful for our view of the dead, of the non-living in the world. As we still have no idea of how everything in the world is alive, and how to express ourselves about what is alive, we form such judgments as “The tree is green”, which presupposes that a relationship exists between something and the color green, whereas the color green is itself the creative element, the force which acts and lives. The transformation of human thinking and feeling will have to take place within the innermost life of the soul. This will take a long time to accomplish, but when it does it will affect social conditions and how people relate to each other.

Today we are only at the beginning of all this. But it is necessary to know which paths lead to the light. I have said that it is meaningful when people get together and each one's subjective beliefs play no role. And consider it from this viewpoint – really think about it – the way in which anthroposophy is described. It is not described through definitions or ordinary judgments. We try to create images, to present things from the most varied sides, and it is senseless to try and nail down something meant in a spiritual-scientific sense with a mere yes or no opinion. People today always want to do that, but it isn't possible.

In happens ever more frequently – because we are growing out of the second stage and into the third – that someone asks: What is good for me in order to counter this or that difficulty in life? Advice is given. Aha! The person concerned says, so in this or that situation in life one must do this or that. They generalize. But it has only a limited meaning, for judgments given from the spiritual world always only have only an individual meaning, are only applicable to one case. This way of generalizing, which we have become accustomed to in the second stage, must not continue into the third stage. People today are very much inclined to carry things over from the past into the future. One can become disinclined towards the things which are pernicious for the soul by seeing clearly what is happening.

Yesterday I indicated to you that in many respects the Catholic Church harks back to the first stage. It contains something like a sham or a shadow of the first stage of human evolution, which sometimes solidifies into a kind of spiritual imperialism, as for example in the 11th century when the Monks of Cluny ruled over Europe more than than is thought. From their ranks the powerful, imperialistic Pope Gregory VII emerged. Therefore Roman Catholic dogma enables the priest to feel greater than Christ, because he can force him to be present at the altar. This clearly shows that the institution of the Catholic Church is a relic, a shadow-image of what existed in the very first imperialism.

You know that a great enmity existed between the Catholic Church and the secret societies which used Freemasonry in the west – a certain form of Freemasonry at least – as their instrument. It would go too far in this lecture to describe in detail how this enmity has gradually increased over time. But one thing can be said, how in these secret societies the opinion is very strong that the Catholic Church is a relic of the first stage of imperialism. The Holy Roman Empire used this framework to have Charlemagne and the Ottos crowned by the pope, thereby using the imperialism of the soul as the means of mundane anointment. They took what still remained from older times and poured it into the new. Thus the imperialism of the second stage was poured into the framework of the first imperialism.

Now we have arrived at the third stage, which shows itself to be economic imperialism, especially in the west. This economic imperialism is connected to a background culture of secret societies, which are sated with empty symbols. But while it has become clear that the social constitution of the Church is a shadow-image of what once existed and no longer has meaning, it is still not understood that in the second stage the statesmen of the west still suffer under a great illusion. Woodrow Wilson would no longer speak of the will of the Church, but he speaks of the will of the State as being self-evident.

But the state only had the importance attributed to it during the second stage of human development. Whereas during the oldest, the first stage the Church was all-powerful, in the second stage the state contains everything that was attributed to the Church in the first stage. Thus the economic imperialism of Great Britain and even a certain idea of freedom has been poured into the state. And those who were educated in Great Britain see in the state something that can well have a will of its own.

But we must perceive that this concept of the state must take the same road the concept of the Church has traveled. It must be realized: If we retain this concept of the state for the entire social organism, a mere rights institution, and force everything else into this rights institution, we are propagating a shadow just as the Church has propagated a shadow – recognized as such by the secret societies. There is little awareness of this though. Think of all the public affairs that people are enthusiastic about which are pressed into the concept of the political state. There are nationalists, chauvinists and so forth; everything we call nation, national , chauvinism, it's all incorporated into the framework of the state. Nationalism is added and the concept of the “nation-state” is construed. Or we may have a certain opinion about, say socialism, even radical socialism: the framework of the state is used. Instead of nationalism, socialism is incorporated. But then we have no concept; it can only be a shadow-image, as the constitution of the Church has become.

In some Protestant circles the idea has arisen that the Church is only the visible institution, that the essence of religion must take root in people's hearts. But this degree of human development has not yet arrived in respect to the political state, otherwise we wouldn't be trying to squeeze all kinds of nationalisms into the political boundaries which exist as the result of the war [First World War – trans.] All this neglects to take one thing into consideration – the fact that what occurs in the historical development of humanity is life and not mechanism. And a characteristic of life is that it comes and goes. The imperialistic approach is different however. According to this approach one does not think about the future. This is part of the present-day approach to public affairs, that people have no living thoughts, only dead ones. They think: Today we instituted something, it is good, therefore it must remain forever. The feminist movement thinks like this, as do the socialists and the nationalists. We have founded something, it begins with us, everything waited for us until we became clever enough. And now we have discovered the cleverest that exists and it will continue to exist forever. It's as though I have brought up a child until he is eighteen years old and I say: I have brought him up correctly, and he will stay as he is. But he will get older, and he will also die, as does everything in the course of human evolution.

Now I come to what I mention before about what must accompany the principle of indifference to one's religious beliefs and fraternity. What must accompany them is the awareness that life on earth includes death and that we are aware that the institutions we create must of necessity also cease to exist, because the death principle already resides in them and they therefore have no wish to exist forever, do not consider being permanent.

Of course under the influence of the thinking characteristic of the second stage this is not possible . But if the feeling of shame of which I spoke yesterday arises, when we realize that we are living in the kingdom of platitudes under which only economic imperialism glimmers – then will we call for the spirit, invisible but real. We will call for a knowledge of the spirit, one which speaks of an invisible kingdom, a kingdom which is not of this world in which the Christ-impulse can actually gain a foothold.

This can only happen when the social order is tripartite, threefold: The economy is auto-administered, the political state is no longer the absolute, all-inclusive entity, but is exclusively concerned with with rights alone, and spiritual/cultural life is truly free, meaning that here in reality a free spiritual sector can be organized. The spiritual life of humanity can only be free if it is dependent only upon itself and when all the institutions responsible for cultivating the spirit, that is, cultural life, are dependent only upon themselves.

What do we have then, when we have this tripartite organism, this social organism? We have an economy in which the living physical earth is predominant. In this sector the economic forces of the economy itself are active. I doubt anyone will think that if the economy is organized as described in my book Towards Social Renewal – Basic Issues of the Social Question some kind of super-sensible forces will be present. When we eat, when we prepare out food, when we make our clothing, it is all reality. Esthetics may be symbolically present, but the actual clothing is the reality.

When we look at the second sector of the future social organism [the rights sector], we don't a symbolism like the second stage, where the political state constituted the totality, but we have what is valid for one person being equally valid for the other.

And the third sector will be neither symbol nor platitude, but a spiritual/cultural reality. The spirit will possess the possibility of really living within humanity.

The inner social order can only be built through a transition to inner truthfulness. In the age of platitudes this will be especially difficult though. For during the age of platitudes people acquire a certain ingenious cleverness, which is, however, nothing more than a play on words of the old concepts. Just consider for a moment a characteristic example. Suddenly from the imperialism of platitudes comes the idea that it would be good if the queen of England also has the title “Empress of India”. One can invent the most beautiful reasons for this, but if it didn't happen, nothing would have changed. The Emperor of Austria, who now belongs to the deposed royalty, before he was chased out carried around along with his other titles a most unusual one: Franz Joseph I, Emperor of Austria, Apostolic King of Hungary, King of Bohemia, Dalmatia, Croatia, Slovenia, Galizia, Lodomeria, Illyia and so on. Among all these titles was also “King of Jerusalem”! The Austrian Emperor also carried, until he was no longer emperor, the title “King of Jerusalem”. It came from the crusades. It would be impossible to give a better example of meaninglessness than this. And such meaninglessness plays a much greater role than you imagine. It a question of whether we can arise to a recognition of the present-day platitudes. It is made difficult because those who live in platitudes are the verbal representatives of the old concepts that stagger around in their brains imitating thoughts. But one can only achieve real thinking again when the inner soul-life is filled with substance and that can only come from knowledge of the spiritual world, of spiritual life. Only by being relieved by the spirit can one become a complete person, after having been constipated with platitudes.

What I described yesterday as a feeling of shame will result in the call for the spirit. And the propagation of the spirit will only be possible if the spiritual/cultural sector is allowed to develop independently. Otherwise we will always have to take advantage of loopholes, as was the case with the Waldorf School because the Württemberg Province education law had such a loophole which made it possible to establish a Waldorf school only according spiritual laws, according to spiritual principles, something which in practically no only place on earth would be possible. But one can only organize the things concerning the spiritual life from the spirit itself if the other two sectors do not interfere, if everything is taken directly from the spiritual sector itself.

At present the tendency is the reverse. But this tendency does not reckon with the fact that with every new generation a new spiritual/cultural life appears on earth. It's immaterial whether a dictatorship or a republic is established, if it is not understood that everything which appears is subject to life and must be continuously transformed, must pass through death and be formed anew, pass through metamorphoses, then all that will be accomplished is that every new generation will be revolutionary. Because only what is considered good for the present will be established. A fundamental concept for the western areas which are so mired in platitudes must be to see the social organism as something living. And one sees it as living only when it is considered in its threefold nature. It is just those whose favorable economic position allows them to spread an [economic] imperialism over practically the whole world who have the terrible responsibility of recognizing that the cultivation of a true spiritual life must be poured into this imperialism. It is ironic that an economic empire which spread over the whole world was founded on the British Isles and then when they were seeking mystical spirituality turned to those whom they had economically conquered and exploited. [India – Tr.] The obligation exists to allow one's own spiritual substance to flow into the social organism.

That is the awareness which our British friends should take with them, that now, in this worldwide important historic moment, in all the world's economic institutions where English is spoken, the responsibility exists to introduce true spirituality into the exterior economic empire. It's an either/or situation: Either efforts remain exclusively oriented towards the economy – in which case the fall of earthly civilization is the inevitable result – or spirit will be poured into this economic empire, in which case what was intended for earthly evolution will be achieved. I would like to say: Every morning we should bear this in mind very seriously and all activities should be organized according to this impulse. The bell tolls with extreme urgency at present – with terrible urgency. In a certain sense we have reached the climax of platitudes. In an age when all content has been squeezed out of platitudes, content which came to humanity previously but which no longer has any meaning, we must absorb real substantial content into our psychological and social life. We must be clear about the fact that this either/or must be decided by each individual for him or her self and that each must participate in this decision with his most inner force of soul. Otherwise he does not participate in the affairs of humanity.

But the attraction for illusion is especially strong in the age of platitudes. We wish so to sweep away the seriousness of life. We avoid looking at the truth inherent in our evolution. How could people let themselves be deceived by Wilsonian ideas if they really had the intense desire for truthful clarity? It must come. The desire for truth must grow in humanity. Above all, the desire for the liberation of spiritual/cultural life must grow along with the knowledge that nobody has the right to call himself a Christian who has not grasped the saying: “My kingdom is not of this world.”

This means that the kingdom of Christ must become an invisible kingdom, a truly invisible empire, an empire of which one speaks as of invisible things. Only when spiritual science gains in importance will people speak of this empire. Not some church, not some state, not some economic empire can create this empire. Only the will of the individual who lives in a liberated spiritual/cultural life can create this empire.

It is difficult to believe that in the lands in which people are downtrodden much can be done to free spiritual life. Therefore it must be done in those lands where the people are not downtrodden politically, economically and, obviously, not spiritually downtrodden. Above all it must be realized that we have not arrived at the day when we say: Until now things have gone downhill, they will go uphill again! No, if people do not act for this objective out of the spirit, things will not go uphill again, but will continue downhill. Humanity does not live today from what it has produced – for to produce again a spiritual impulse is necessary – humanity lives today from reserves, from old reserves, and they are being used up. And it is childish and naïve to think that a low point is reached some day and things will get better then, even with our hands in our laps. That's not how it is. And I would like to see that the words spoken here kindle a fire in the hearts of those who belong to the anthroposophical movement. I would hope that the specter which perhaps haunts those who find their way to this anthroposophical movement be overcome by the spirit meant here. It is certainly true that someone who finds his way to such a movement often seeks something for himself, for his soul. Of course he can have that, but only in order to stand with his soul in the service of the whole. He should advance, certainly, for himself, but only so mankind can advance through him. I cannot say that often enough. It should be added to those things I said should be thought about every morning.

If we had really taken the inner impulse of this movement seriously, we would have been much farther along. But perhaps what is done in our circles does not help advance towards the future, but is often a hindrance. We should ask ourselves why this is so. It is very important. And above all we should not think that the sharpest powers of opposition are not active from all sides against what strives for the well-being of humanity.

I have already indicated to you what is being done in the world in opposition to our movement, what hostility is activated against us. I feel myself obliged to make these things known to you, so that you should never say to yourself: We have already refuted this or that. We have refuted nothing, because these opponents are not interested in the truth. They prefer to ignore as much as possible the facts and simply aim slanderous accusations from all corners.

I would like to read part of a letter to you which arrived recently from Oslo. “One of our anthroposophical friends works in a so-called people's college in Oslo together with a certain Shirmer. This Mr Shirmer is in a certain sense quite a proficient teacher, but is also a fanatical racist and a sworn anti-Semite. At a people's meeting where three of us gave lectures about the Threefold Society, he talked against us, or rather against Dr. Steiner's Towards Social Renewal, although without much success. The guy has a certain influence in teachers' circles and he works in his own way in the sense of the social triformation in the school insofar as he is for freedom, but on the other hand he works against the social triformation and Dr Steiner for the simple reason that he suspects that Dr Steiner is a Jew. That is perhaps not so bad. We must expect and overcome more serious opposition. But now he has received confirmation of his suspicion. He turned to an “authority”, namely the editor of the political anthropological monthly, Berlin-Steglitz. This purely anti-Semitic magazine wrote to him that Dr. Steiner is a Jew through and through. He is associated with the Zionists. And the editor added that they, the anti-Semites, have had their eye on you [Dr Steiner] for a long time. Mr Schirmer also says that a persecution of the Jews is beginning now in Germany, and that all the Jews on the anti-Semites' blacklist should be simply shot down or, as they say, rendered harmless.” and so on.

You see, this has nothing to do with antisemitism as such, that's only on the face of it. They choose slogans in these situations, with which they try to accomplish as much as possible with people who listen to slogans. But such things clearly indicate what most people don't want to see, what they want to ignore more and more. It is today much more serious that you think, and we should not ignore the seriousness of the times, but should realize that we are only at the beginning of these things which are opposed to everything that is intended to advance human progress. And that we should never, without neglecting our responsibilities, divert our attention from what is a radical evil within humanity, what manifests as a radical evil within humanity. The worst that can happen today is paying attention to mere slogans and platitudes, and believing that outdated concepts somehow have roots in human reality today – if we do not initiate a new reality from the sources of the spirit itself.

That, my dear friends, was what I wanted to tell you today, first of all to all of you, but especially to those whose visit has pleased us greatly – especially to our English friends, so that when they return to their own country, where it will be so important, they will have something on which to base their activities. You will have seen that I have not spoken in favor or against anyone, nor have I flattered anyone. I only speak here in order to say the truth. I have known theosophists who when they speak to members of a foreign nation begin to talk about what an honor it is to be able to spread the teachings about the spiritual life in a nation which has accumulated so much glory. Such things cannot be said to you here. But I believe that you have come here to hear the truth and I think that I have best served you by really trying to tell the unvarnished truth. You will have learned during your trip that telling the truth nowadays is not a comfortable thing, for the truth calls forth opposition now more than ever. Do not be afraid of opposition, for they are one and the same: to have enemies and to tell the truth. And we will understand each other best when our mutual understanding is based on the desire to hear the unvarnished truth.

Before I leave for Germany, this is what I wanted to say to you today, and especially to our English friends.


Lecture 1.

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