ALBERT EINSTEIN'S THEORY OF RELATIVITY AS RUDOLF STEINER'S FINAL “RIDDLE OF Philosophy

Tom Mellett

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       “Insofar as man considers himself within the world of natural things and events, he will find it impossible to escape the conclusions of [Einstein's] theory of relativity. But if he does not want to lose himself in mere relativities, in what may be called an impotence of his inner life, if he wants to experience his own entity, he must not seek what is 'substantial in itself' in the realm of Nature, but in [the realm] of transcending Nature, in the realm of the spirit.

       “It will not be possible to evade this theory of relativity for the physical world, but precisely this fact will drive us to a knowledge of the spirit. What is significant about the theory of relativity is the fact that it proves the necessity of a science of the spirit that is to be sought in spiritual ways, independent of observation in nature. That the theory of relativity forces us to think in this way constitutes its value within the development of world conception.”

--- Rudolf Steiner, The Riddles of Philosophy, p. 444
[Note: All quotes are taken from:
Steiner, Rudolf, The Riddles of Philosophy,
Spring Valley, Anthroposophic Press, 1973.]

       In his monumental work, The Riddles of Philosophy, published in 1923, Rudolf Steiner traces the evolution of Western philosophical thought from its birth in ancient Greece to its deathbed in our century. The book is not an encyclopedic recounting of philosophers and their ideas, but rather an organic survey of the evolving sequence of thought riddles faced by various philosophers over the last 25 centuries. What questions did they wrestle with at what time and why? If philosophy is an ocean, then Steiner dives underwater to evaluate the undercurrents and sources of philosophical questions, whereas the traditional academic treatment of the history of philosophy only catalogues the sequential passage of philosophers as conceptual sailors piloting their noetic vessels on the ocean surface. While academic philosophy collects only the manifest list of passengers and cargo, Steiner is interested in the actual experience of the many voyages, so that the reader may experience philosophy not as a dry, abstract scheme, but as a living organism that is born, grows up, matures and dies over twenty-five centuries of human existence.

       To Rudolf Steiner's way of thinking, the concept of Hindu philosophy, or Buddhist philosophy, or any Oriental philosophy is actually a contradiction in terms. Philosophy as such is a specific Western European phenomenon which only came into existence in the sixth or seventh Century before Christ in the locale of Greece. The word itself means “love of wisdom,” and to the Greek mind, the very need to love something was a tacit admission that the something was missing, and loving it was searching to regain it.

       What was the “lost wisdom?” Whatever it was, it was not lost by the Hindus, Buddhists or other Oriental people. Since there was nothing lost, there was nothing to be regained, and hence no need to invent such a thing as philosophy, thereby making the concept of Oriental philosophy a contradiction in terms. As Steiner puts it at the beginning of The Riddles of Philosophy:

       “All attempts to find [that] philosophical thought life developed in pre-Greek times fail upon closer inspection. Genuine philosophy cannot be dated earlier than the Greek civilization. What may at first glance seem to resemble the element of thought in Oriental or Egyptian world contemplation proves, on closer inspection to be not real thought, but parabolic, symbolic conception.” (p. 6)

       The “lost wisdom” was a direct picture consciousness wherein world and cosmic phenomena were perceived without any need to “think about” them. There was no separation between human beings and the phenomena they perceived because there was no ego-consciousness confined to the “prison” of the physical body as we experience it today. Ancient ego-consciousness and thinking were essentially infinite: unbounded in space, eternal in time and thoroughly devoid of our modern mechanistic concept of causality, which requires independent self-consciousness for its conception. The ancient human self was felt to be entirely dependent, like living cells in a higher organism, on greater spiritual beings who “caused and effected” all phenomena. Humans could picture these beings, as myths, sagas and legends from all ancient cultures attest, but they were powerless to withstand such “primary causality” except by earnest sacrifice and abject supplication of their “gods.”

       The raw, majestic figures of Greek mythology can give us clues to this ancient picture consciousness: Ouranos, meaning “Heaven,” the sky god, castrated by his son Chronos meaning “Time,” who in turn ate many of his own infant children, one of whom was Zeus meaning “Law,” saved by his mother Rhea meaning “Flow,” as she wrapped a stone instead of baby Zeus in swaddling clothes as the next morsel for her cannibalistic husband. Then a new generation arose as Zeus the lawgiver, while finding so many mortal women irresistible, also raged at Prometheus, meaning “Forethought,” and chained him to the mountain rock for stealing the divine fire and giving it to such undeserving creatures as mortal human beings.

       In Greek myth as well as in other creation myths, there is a progression from higher gods or beings down to lesser ones, and finally, specific human tribes make their appearance as the “fallen ones.” The humble earth is seen as a “dumping ground” of misery and suffering, while “paradise lost” is some stupendous realm beyond the earthly, which human beings have a deep memory of losing, and long to regain. As Rudolf Steiner describes it, the ancient Hindus, for example, were “homesick” in the physical world and sought ways to return to the nirvana of their original spiritual state. But in the region of Greece, in the 7th century BC there was to be yet another “fall” for humankind-this time, the extinction of that ancient clairvoyant picture consciousness and its replacement by a new faculty of soul we modern people would recognize as independent thinking. Steiner indicates the positive reason for this extinction:

       “As long as the human soul conceives world [and cosmic] phenomena through pictures, it feels itself intimately bound up with them. The soul feels itself in this phase to be a member of the world [and cosmic] organism; it does not think of itself as an independent entity separated from this organism. As pure pictureless thought awakens in the human soul, the soul begins to feel its separation from the world [and universe]. Thought becomes the soul's educator for independence.” (p.6)

       As human thought begins to separate out from its cosmic mythological source and philosophy is born to gain it back, the first inklings of an independent ego consciousness also form. It is interesting to note how this spiritual impulse is permeating other cultures at this time, circa 600 BC. In India, Guatama Buddha is teaching the ways of compassion and how to quench the desire for incarnation. So why should he bother with philosophy, which would lead to an even deeper entrapment in the physical world of “Maya,” or illusion? To the Hindu, it was bad enough to be physically incarnated in this world of illusion; to fall even further by mentally incarnating as well was too much for Eastern spirituality to bear.

       But over in Israel, the Hebrews with their god Jehovah, whose name means the “I am,” were about to come out of the Babylonian captivity. The prophet Daniel had just initiated the Magi, who would seek the “Golden Star,” i.e. the reincarnated Zarathustra in the Solomon Jesus of the Matthew Gospel. And the Mosaic Law continued its development of individual responsibility for moral actions in those Hebrews who tried to follow the dictates of the Torah, including the Ten Commandments. The Greeks and Hebrews both placed a great value on existence in the physical world, while their Eastern counterparts did not. In this light, then, the birth of philosophy cannot be separated from the birth of Christianity in that both “organisms” focus on the world of Becoming: metamorphoses of the soul, transformations of the spirit, evolution in both mental and moral consciousness, while Eastern religious conceptions remain satisfied with the static, unchanging world of spiritual Being.

       Over the 25 century life-span of philosophy, Rudolf Steiner characterizes four distinct phases of development in time periods lasting approximately 6 or 7 centuries. Each phase shows a kind of tandem relationship between thought and ego-consciousness, and because there are two contrasting figures of Greek mythology who express this relationship so well, I wish to characterize them before delineating the four periods of philosophy. The two figures appear in Aeschylus' play “Prometheus Bound,” and they are: Prometheus and Io.

       Prometheus, whose name means “forethought,” or “he who thinks ahead,” is a figure whom Steiner refers to as the Greek Lucifer. Prometheus awakened a consciousness in humans that was too dangerous in the eyes of Zeus, so Zeus had Prometheus chained to a rock in the Caucasus mountains. But Prometheus is patient, for he knows a secret that is not known to Zeus. In the future, Zeus will lie with a mortal woman, Io, and she will give birth to a son, who will start a line of descent leading to the birth of Hercules or Heracles, meaning “he who is called by Hera.” This great hero, whom Steiner indicates is a portent of Christ Jesus, will grow up to succeed Zeus in his position of authority as Law-giver in the heavens. Heracles will also kill the vulture that eats Prometheus' liver, and then liberate the great Greek Lucifer.

       In Aeschylus' tragedy, Io is under a terrible curse from Hera (Juno) and has been wandering over the earth when she suddenly comes upon the chained Prometheus. Her name “Io” is a possible dialectical form of the Greek word “ego!” So here we have “thought” meeting “ego” in the figures of Prometheus and Io. And it will be instructive to keep them in mind when contemplating the distinctions between thought and ego-consciousness as Steiner describes the four periods of philosophy. For example, Prometheus is male, a god, punished by Zeus, chained to a rock; Io is female, a mortal, punished by Hera (Juno), the jealous wife of Zeus (Jupiter). Io is free to roam the earth but she is relentlessly pursued and stung by the “thousand-eyed gadfly,” a wonderful though wincing description of the pricks and pangs of modern self-consciousness.

       Here then are the five phases of the organism we call philosophy --- from its birth in 600 BC to its death in 1950 AD. The time boundaries of each period are very approximate and somewhat arbitrary, both because there is so much overlap and the “give or take” factor is probably at least a half a century.
 



 

I. (600 BC to 100 AD)
Awakening Pictureless Thought as the Harbinger of Ego-Consciousness.

       This period reaches its zenith in the “Golden Age” of Greece, with Plato, Aristotle, et al. and recedes until it ends in the time of early Christianity. Thoughts were perceived in external nature like we perceive colors or tones today; there was no sense of man producing thoughts, but rather receiving them from outside. Ego-consciousness is still spread out over nature, but is being felt as moving inward and growing dark, a frightening prospect to many. (Prometheus bids Io godspeed as she begins her arduous journey).
 
 

II. (100 AD to 900 AD)
Awakening Ego-Consciousness as Thought Incubates in Religious Conceptions.

       With the decline of Greece and the ascendancy of Roman culture, the individual ego appears proudly as the Roman “citizen.” But this is self-consciousness experienced as semi-conscious feeling, not fully conscious thought. Man begins to feel that he produces his own thoughts, but in a dream-like way. There is still great fear of the inner world, so the rest of the thought universe “outside” acts to shelter this budding inner thought organism in majestic religious conceptions. A notable figure of this time is St. Augustine, who longs to live forever in his “City of God.” Gnostics and Manichaeans, with their cosmic conceptions of Christ, flourish briefly but are then snuffed out. (Io is wandering alone, dreaming her future, gaining strength to go on, while Prometheus awaits his future liberation in noble confident silence. Thought has faith in ego).
 
 

III. (900 AD to 1500 AD)
Strengthening Ego-Consciousness Awakens Doubts about the Reality of the Inner Thought Life.

       In 869, the 5th Ecumenical Council reduced the essence of the human being from a trinity of body-soul-spirit to a dualism of body soul.

       The 10th Century sees the epic of Parsifal and the Holy Grail become an ideal. Inner thought life becomes so strong that man actually begins to question its ability to comprehend truth. The struggle between Nominalism and Realism engages Scholastics like Thomas Aquinas and Anselm of Canterbury. Arabic scholars develop algebra and other fields of mathematics that will be used so powerfully to develop the natural science of the next and final period. (Prometheus doubts his liberation as Io reaches the end of her wanderings and is fructified by Zeus in Egypt).
 
 

IV. (1500 AD to 1950 AD)
The Merging of Independent Ego-Consciousness and Fully Subjective Thought.

       No one better expresses this “merger” than Rene Descartes in his dictum of 1640: “I think; therefore, I am.” Thought has become concentrated so deeply in the soul that thought can now dictate the very reality of ego-consciousness! Kant determines that the “I am” can only “photograph” the external world with its mental “camera.” The Newtonian universe becomes the perfect creation of an external God who has become Machine, but 20th Century physics and artificial computer intelligence turn this view upside down: the human being is the machine that has created the illusion of the Newtonian universe and, by strong implication, God! (Prometheus oscillates between manic gloating and depressive loathing; he knows that Io's mission is complete and Zeus will be overthrown, but he still must wait 13 generations before Heracles is born).
 
 

V. (1950 AD to present)

The Independent Ego Awakens out of its Subjectivity to Perceive Thinking-in-Itself

       The goal of philosophy having been reached -- i.e. to stand the human ego "on its feet," as it were -- the being Philosophia may now die a well-deserved and most welcome death. For the death of the living organism of philosophy in the 1st half of the 20th Century occurs simultaneously with the birth of anthroposophy. Philosophy taught the human ego how to stand up; now anthroposophy takes over and teaches the human ego how to walk.
 


       In 1995 AD, we are at the point when Prometheus is still chained to the rock and the curse of Hera on Io needs to be lifted so that she, Io, (Ego) may become the Divine Sophia, or Anthroposophia. Steiner did not live long enough to write the second volume of Riddles of Philosophy, but he mentioned its goal:

       “... to show at the end how philosophical evolution leads the soul to aspects toward a future human life in cognition. Through this, the soul should be able to develop a world picture out of its own self-consciousness in which its true being can be conceived simultaneously with the picture of Nature that is the result of modem scientific development.” (p. 11)

       This is quite a challenge. How can we now begin to fathom the true being of the inner soul with a self-consciousness that sits locked in its self-created prison of subjective illusion, and therefore can only view the soul as some kind of ghost-like epiphenomenon of material chemical processes? And even more, how can we now begin to correct the picture of external nature developed by modern science which, while it is consistent, sophisticated, true and exact, is nonetheless a glorified autopsy report on the corpse of Mother Nature? Perhaps we might start by asking the questions: when did Mother Nature die? And why? And, no pun intended, was it natural death, or was it “naturicide?”

       According to Rudolf Steiner in the opening quote of this article, it took Albert Einstein's theory of relativity to make us realize that indeed Mother Nature was dead, and hence the spirit could no longer be found there, but had to be sought for in a realm beyond her corpse. One might say that Mother Nature was first infected with her fatal “illness” when philosophy was born 25 centuries ago, but if I were to pinpoint an event that would correspond to the first “bloodletting” in the death of Mother Nature, it would be Nicholas Copernicus placing the human mental representation of the sun at the center of the new anthropocentric universe in 1542. Mother Nature became the “sacrificial lamb” who was slain, not for our sins, but rather for the sake of our respective individual self consciousnesses. In the final chapter of The Riddles of Philosophy, called “Outline of an Approach to Anthroposophy,” Rudolf Steiner points out the dilemma posed by ego-consciousness and a true knowledge of Mother Nature:

       “… [man] must give a provisional form to his ego in order to suppress from his consciousness the forces that unite him with the world. If these forces exerted their influences in his consciousness without interruption, he would never have developed a strong, independent self-consciousness. He would be incapable of experiencing himself as a self-conscious ego. The development of self-consciousness therefore actually depends on the fact that the mind is given the opportunity to perceive the world without that part of reality that is extinguished by the self-conscious ego prior to an act of cognition.

       “The [universal] forces belonging to this part of reality withdraw into obscurity in order to allow the self-conscious ego to shine forth in full power. The ego must realize that it owes its self-knowledge to a fact that spreads a veil over the knowledge of the world (or universe).... everything that stimulated the soul to a vigorous energetic experience of the ego, conceals at the same time the deeper foundations in which this ego has its roots.

       “All knowledge acquired by the ordinary consciousness tends to strengthen the self-conscious ego.” (pp. 450-451)

       We are now ready to consider the anthroposophical importance of Albert Einstein's theory of relativity for the evolution of thought, ego consciousness and beyond. Compare the following passage to the one above in the light of what Steiner said about the knowledge gained by ordinary consciousness:

       “. . . for many thinkers a science of nature was previously considered to be something that [could] be mathematically demonstrated, [but] one finds in [Einstein's] theory of relativity nothing less than an attempt to declare any real science of nature null and void. For just this was regarded as the scientific nature of mathematics that it could determine the laws of space and time without reference to the observation of nature! Contrary to this view, it is now maintained that the things and processes of nature themselves determine the relations of space and time. . . According to this view, every thought of an essential reality that manifests itself in Nature is precluded. Everything is only in relation to something else.” (p. 444)

       In the 4th period of philosophy, the Newtonian world view had used the mathematics of algebra, calculus and Euclidean geometry as “tools” and “scaffolding” that were not themselves part of the edifice being constructed. But now Einstein comes along and makes the “scaffolding” of geometry itself a central plan and building material! For Einstein, the presence of matter in the physical universe creates the geometry of space-time which in turn creates the matter of the physical universe! Moreover, matter itself is equivalent to energy. All four previously separate categories of space, time, matter and energy now suffer a “meltdown.” They coalesce into a universal ocean of mutually inter-dependent relationships. And indeed, to a Greek mind such as Plato, the mechanistic Newtonian world view would be seen as an expression of the “dry” Earth element, while the new Einsteinian world view expresses the “moist” element of Water. “Dry” refers to the mutual exclusion of categories, while “moist” indicates their mutual inclusion and interrelationship.

       To express these two world views in terms of a renewal of ancient Greek picture consciousness, the stories of “Prometheus Bound” and “Tantalus Condemned” are apropos. Prometheus is modern ego consciousness chained to the “rock” of the physical mineral body as thought is “chained” to the brain. Prometheus expresses for ordinary consciousness knowledge of the deterministic Newtonian universe wherein space is the infinite stage upon which the three actors: time, matter and energy play their separate parts. Prometheus was condemned by the Law, Zeus, for stealing fire, or spirit from the divine. On the other hand, Tantalus was condemned for stealing not fire from the gods, but rather ambrosia and nectar, divine food and drink. Tantalus is “chained,” not to a rock, but is stuck in the middle of a river up to his chest. He lives in eternal longing for food and drink, but when he bends down to drink the river water, it recedes from his open mouth; if he reaches up to grasp the fruit of the tree branches above him, they recede as well. Tantalus can only live in the water of life with longing, a picture of spaceless time, the eternal duration of the present moment never fulfilled, while Prometheus waits patiently in timeless space, knowing his future destiny as well as his past.

       The longing of Tantalus is a picture of ordinary consciousness trying to grasp the etheric realm of life, growth and metamorphosis of form. It also expresses very well the situation described by Einstein's special theory of relativity. If desolate non-living space is the infinite stage to Prometheus-Newton, the living richness of time is forever forbidden to Tantalus-Einstein by the insurmountable barrier of the finite speed of light. Such a speed can never be achieved by any being or material object in our known universe. In fact, the more an object approaches the limiting speed of light, the more difficult it becomes to go a little faster because the object's mass increases, a fact that requires more and more energy to propel the object any faster, until the energy need becomes infinite. At that point, the object's mass would increase beyond the mass of the entire universe, space would contract to infinitesimal thinness, while time would dilate into eternal duration.

       Now it is the goal of physics to seek the general laws that explain the phenomena of Nature. This is the function of the inorganic sciences as explained by Rudolf Steiner in his book The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World View. When these laws can finally describe the entire universe, then the inorganic sciences become the organic sciences and they then explain phenomena directly out of the archetype and not the law. This transition is not the abolition of the physical laws but rather their fulfillment. It is exactly the situation St. Paul writes about in his epistle to the Galatians. Paul explains that rigid adherence the Mosaic Law, including the 10 Commandments, cannot justify us before God. The Law was given not as a code of conduct for humans to follow, but rather to convince humans that it was impossible to follow the law and therefore justification had to come through the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ Jesus, who came to fulfill the law, not to abolish it. When the Pharisees, the rigid followers and keepers of the Mosaic Law, tried to trap Christ Jesus for blaspheming their Law, Christ replied: “Before Abraham came to be, I am.” Later He spoke of the two new commandments: (1) love God and (2) love thy neighbor. These two new commandments are phrased in a positive way, not as negative “thou shalt nots.” Therefore, the two new love commandments require an active faculty of moral imagination in order to follow them. There is a freedom to picture there that did not exist in the negative sanctions of the old law. it took no faculty of active imagination to be under the iron Necessity of the old law. One could be completely blind in imagination and still try to follow the law.

       To return to Einstein and Tantalus, where is the old law of the Greeks? It is the figure of Zeus, the Lawgiver. It was Zeus who condemned Prometheus to the rock and Tantalus to the river. And for Einstein, the law dictated the barrier of the finite speed of light measured by all observers in this universe. But the law was not dictated by light itself but rather by human measurement of that light. For light, in its unmeasured essence, a state physicists call “virtual,” is everywhere all at once. The “virtual photon” as it is so prosaically called, has no mass; it exists in some realm outside of our space and time. Thus for such an essence the concept of a “speed of light” is an absurdity, quite possibly the greatest oxymoron of the 20th Century! For unmeasured light is not a noun-like object; it is a verb! It is the activity of seeing, not a passive thing seen! But when light is made into an object by the human act of measurement, the light is completely annihilated and the shattered remnants of its corpse are registered by precise instrumentation to have a finite speed of 186,282 miles per second in a vacuum.

       Is it possible to overcome this barrier? No, it must be recognized and respected for what it is. That is the great legacy of Albert Einstein. His theory of relativity forces us to recognize this insurmountable barrier of Tantalus. And to help explain this to both anthroposophists and non-anthroposophists alike, I would like to put forth a thought experiment that was inspired by the great English physicist, Sir Arthur Eddington, who in 1919, experimentally verified Einstein's prediction of the bending of star light by the mass of the sun. Sir Arthur pictured the scientist as a fisherman who cast his net into the ocean and caught a lot of large fish, while the smaller fish escaped through the netting. Just as the fisherman would go home with his catch and forget about the little fish, so the scientist builds his science only on the basis of the phenomena he catches in his measurement net. But what if the scientist decided to catch the smaller fish? He would then build a finer and finer net and catch smaller and smaller fish. Extending this thought to its logical conclusion, what if the fisherman built a net so fine, that nothing, not even water, could get through? Then it would cease to be a net and become instead a barrier, and the fisherman would cease being a fisherman and become an observer of the fish in their habitat. The barrier would then be merely a convenient way to focus his observational activity. He might still catch fish in order to eat, but he wouldn't build a whole science on his catching activity alone.

       What Albert Einstein showed us was the finite barrier to our perceptions, not the infinite essence of our being. He really pointed out the illusion of the external world created by our “I am” consciousness in trying to measure infinite light. When Rudolf Steiner speaks of Albert Einstein forcing us to look for the spirit in a “realm transcending Nature,” he is telling us to develop a higher form of “perceiving in thinking and thinking in perceiving,” a path of knowledge that leads not to the abolition of the ego-consciousness, but rather the fulfillment of ego-consciousness. From now on, Western humanity can refill the emptiness of desolate Promethean space with the substance of true imaginations, a fulfillment of the old mythological picture consciousness. And the longing of Tantalus can be fulfilled by a direct perception of the living essence of time in true metamorphosis and morphology- or the entire universe as a living organism.

       We inherit the finished work of creation as the Rosicrucian saying goes: “Ex Deo nascimur” (out of God we are born). Albert Einstein became a pioneer or prophet of the second: “In Christo morimur” (in Christ we die), since we can no longer find the original spirit in Nature. Finally, we must fulfill the third: “Per Spiritum Sanctum reviviscimus” (through the Holy Spirit we are resurrected). In a Pentecost lecture, Rudolf Steiner identified the Holy Spirit as the transformed or redeemed Lucifer. He also identified Prometheus as the Greek Lucifer. It is then up to all of us with our strong ego-consciousnesses to liberate Prometheus-Lucifer from his chains and to resurrect our way to the realm of the spirit transcending Nature.


© 2000 Tom Mellett

First published in the Journal for Anthroposophy,
Number 60, Spring 1995 issue, pp. 51-63)

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