Characteristics of the Present Age/Lecture 1

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We now enter upon a series of meditations which, nevertheless, at bottom contains only a single thought, constituting of itself one organic whole. If I could at once communicate to you this single thought in the same clearness with which it must necessarily be present to my own mind before I begin my undertaking, and with which it must guide me in every word which I have now to address to you, then from the first step of our progress, perfect light would overspread the whole path which we have to pursue together. But I am compelled gradually, and in your own sight, to build up this single thought out of its several parts, disengaging it at the same time from various modifying elements: this is the necessary condition of every communication of thought, and only by this its fundamental law does that which in itself is but one single thought become expanded and broken up into a series of thoughts and meditations.

Such being the case, and especially as I am not here to repeat what has been already known of old, but to put forth new views of things,—I must request of you at the outset not to be surprised if our subject does not at first manifest that clearness which, according to the laws of all communication of thought, it can acquire only through subsequent development; and I must entreat you to look for perfect light only at our conclusion, when a complete survey of the whole shall have become possible. Nevertheless it is the duty of every man who undertakes to propound any subject whatever, to take care that each separate thought shall assume its proper place in his arrangement, and be produced there with all the distinctness which it is possible to throw around it in that place,—at least for those who can appreciate distinct language, and are capable of following a connected discourse; and I shall use my most earnest efforts to fulfil this duty.

With this first and only premonition, let us now, without farther delay, proceed to our subject.


A philosophical picture of the Present Age is what we have promised in these lectures. But that view only can be called philosophical which refers back the multiform phenomena which lie before us in experience to the unity of one common principle, and, on the other hand, from that one principle can deduce and completely explain those phenomena. The mere Empiricist who should undertake a description of the Age would seize upon some of its most striking phenomena, just as they presented themselves to casual observation, and recount these, without having any assured conviction that he had understood them all, and without being able to point out any other connexion between them than their coëxistence in one and the same time. The Philosopher who should propose to himself the task of such a description would, independently of all experience, seek out an Idea of the Age (which indeed in its own form,—as Idea,—cannot be apparent in experience), and exhibit the mode in which this Idea would reveal itself under the forms of the necessary phenomena of the Age; and in so doing he would distinctly exhaust the circle of these phenomena, and bring them forth in necessary connexion with each other, through the common Idea which lies at the bottom of them all. The first would be the Chronicler of the Age; the second would have made a History of it a possible thing.

In the first place, if the Philosopher must deduce from the unity of his presupposed principle all the possible phenomena of experience, it is obvious that in the fulfilment of this purpose he does not require the aid of experience; that in following it out he proceeds merely as a Philosopher, confining himself strictly within the limits which that character imposes upon him, paying no respect whatever to experience, and thus absolutely a priori, as this method is termed in scientific phraseology;—and in respect to our own subject it is clear that he must be able a priori to describe Time as a whole, and all its possible Epochs. It is an entirely different question whether the present time be actually characterized by the phenomena that are deduced from the principle which he may lay down, and thus whether the Age so pictured by the speaker be really the Present Age,—should he maintain such a position, as we, for example, shall maintain it. On this part of the subject every man must consult for himself the experience of his life, and compare it with the history of the Past, as well as with his anticipations of the Future; for here the business of the Philosopher is at an end, and that of the Observer of the world and of men begins. We, for our part, intend to be no more than philosophers in this place, and have bound ourselves to nothing more; and thus the final judgment, so soon as you are in a position to pass such a judgment, must devolve upon you. It is now our business, in the first place, strictly to settle and define our theme.

Thus then: Every particular Epoch of Time, as we have already hinted above, is the fundamental Idea of a particular Age. These Epochs and fundamental Ideas of particular Ages, however, can only be thoroughly understood by and through each other, and by means of their relation to Universal Time. Hence it is clear that the Philosopher, in order to be able rightly to characterize any individual Age—and, if he will, his own—must first have understood a priori and thoroughly penetrated into the signification of Universal Time and all its possible Epochs.

This comprehension of Universal Time, like all philosophical comprehension, again presupposes a fundamental Idea of Time; an Idea of a fore-ordered, although only gradually unfolding, accomplishment of Time, in which each successive period is determined by the preceding; or, to express this more shortly and in more common phraseology,—it presupposes a World-plan, which, in its primitive unity, may be clearly comprehended, and from which may be correctly deduced all the great Epochs of human life on Earth, so that they may be distinctly understood both in their origin, and in their connexion with each other. The former,—the World-plan,—is the fundamental Idea of the entire life of Man on Earth; the latter,—the chief Epochs of this life,—are the fundamental Ideas of particular Ages of which we have spoken, from which again the phenomena of these Ages are to be deduced.

We have thus, in the first place, a fundamental Idea of the entire life of Man, dividing itself into different Epochs, which can only be understood by and through each other; each of which Epochs is again the fundamental Idea of a particular Age, and is revealed in manifold phenomena therein.

The life of Mankind on this Earth stands here in place of the One Universal Life, and Earthly Time in place of Universal Time;—such are the limits within which we are confined by the proposed popular character of our discourses, since it is impossible to speak at once profoundly and popularly of the Heavenly and Eternal. Here, I say, and in these discourses only, shall this be so; for, strictly speaking, and in the higher flights of speculation, Human Life on Earth, and Earthly Time itself, are but necessary Epochs of the One Time and of the One Eternal Life;—and this Earthly Life with all its subordinate divisions may be deduced from the fundamental Idea of the Eternal Life already accessible to us here below. It is our present voluntary limitation alone which forbids us to undertake this strictly demonstrable deduction, and permits us here only to declare the fundamental Idea of the Earthly Life, requesting every hearer to bring this Idea to the test of his own sense of truth, and, if he can, to approve it thereby. Life of Mankind on Earth, we have said, and Epochs of this Life. We speak here only of the progressive Life of the Race, not of the Individual, which last in all these discourses shall remain untouched,—and I beg of you never to lose sight of this our proper point of view.

The Idea of a World-Plan is thus implied in our inquiry, which, however, I am not at this time to deduce from the fundamental Idea indicated above, but only to point out. I say therefore,—and so lay the foundation of our rising edifice,—the End of the Life of Mankind on Earth is this,—that in this Life they may order all their relations with Freedom according to Reason.

With Freedom, I have said;—their own Freedom,—the Freedom of Mankind in their collective capacity,—as a Race:—and this Freedom is the first accessory condition of our fundamental principle which I intend at present to pursue, leaving the other conditions, which may likewise need explanation, to the subsequent lectures. This Freedom becomes apparent in the collective consciousness of the Race, and it appears there as the proper and peculiar Freedom of the Race;—as a true and real fact;—the product of the Race during its Life and proceeding from its Life, so that the absolute existence of the Race itself is necessarily implied in the existence of the fact and product thus attributed to it. (If a certain person has done something, it is unquestionably implied in that fact that the person has been in existence prior to the deed, in order that he might form the resolution so to act; and also during the accomplishment of the deed, in order that he might carry his previous resolution into effect; and every one might justly accept the proof of non-existence at a particular time, as equivalent to the proof of non-activity at the same time. In the same way,—if Mankind, as a Race, has done something, and appeared as the actor in such deed, this act must necessarily imply the existence of the Race at a time when the act had not yet been accomplished.)

As an immediate consequence of this remark, the Life of Mankind on Earth divides itself, according to the fundamental Idea which we have laid down, into two principal Epochs or Ages:—the one in which the Race exists and lives without as yet having ordered its relations with Freedom according to Reason; and the other in which this voluntary and reasonable arrangement is brought about.

To begin our farther inquiry with the first Epoch;—it does not follow, because the Race has not yet, by its own free act, ordered its relations according to Reason, that therefore these relations are not ordered by Reason; and hence the one assertion is by no means to be confounded with the other. It is possible that Reason of itself, by its own power, and without the coöperation of human Freedom, may have determined and ordered the relations of Mankind. And so it is in reality. Reason is the First Law of the Life of a Race of Men, as of all Spiritual Life; and in this sense and in no other shall the word ‘Reason’ be used in these lectures. Without the living activity of this law a Race of Men could never have come into existence; or, even if it could be supposed to have attained to being, it could not, without this activity, maintain its existence for a single moment. Hence, where Reason cannot as yet work by Freedom, as in the first Epoch, it acts as a law or power of Nature; and thus may be present in consciousness and active there, only without insight into the grounds of its activity; or, in other words, may exist as mere feeling, for so we call consciousness without insight.

In short, to express this in common language:—Reason acts as blind Instinct, where it cannot as yet act through Free Will. It acts thus in the first Epoch of the Life of Mankind on Earth; and this first Epoch is thereby more closely characterized and more strictly defined.

By means of this stricter definition of the first Epoch, we are also enabled, by contrast, more strictly to define the second. Instinct is blind;—a consciousness without insight. Freedom, as the opposite of Instinct, is thus seeing, and clearly conscious of the grounds of its activity. But the sole ground of this free activity is Reason;—Freedom is thus conscious of Reason, of which Instinct was unconscious. Hence, between the dominion of Reason through mere Instinct, and the dominion of the same Reason through Freedom, there arises an intermediate condition,—the Consciousness or Knowledge of Reason.

But further:—Instinct as a blind impulse excludes Knowledge; hence the birth of Knowledge presupposes a liberation from the compulsive power of Instinct as already accomplished; and thus between the dominion of Reason as Instinct and that of Reason as Knowledge, there is interposed a third condition,—that of Liberation from Reason as Instinct.

But how could humanity free itself, or even wish to free itself, from that Instinct which is the law of its existence, and rules it with beloved and unobtrusive power?—or how could the one Reason which while it speaks in Instinct, is likewise active in the impulse towards Freedom,—how could this same Reason come into conflict and opposition with itself in human life? Clearly not directly; and hence a new medium must intervene between the dominion of Reason as Instinct, and the impulse to cast off that dominion. This medium arises in the following way:—the results of Reason as Instinct are seized upon by the more powerful individuals of the Race;—in whom, on this very account, that Instinct speaks in its loudest and fullest tones, as the natural but precipitate desire to elevate the whole race to the level of their own greatness, or rather to put themselves in the room and place of the Race;—and by them it is changed into an external ruling Authority, upheld through outward constraint; and then among other men Reason awakes in another form—as the impulse towards Personal Freedom,—which, although it never opposes the mild rule of the inward Instinct which it loves, yet rises in rebellion against the pressure of a foreign Instinct which has usurped its rights; and in this awakening it breaks the chains,—not of Reason as Instinct itself,—but of the Instinct of foreign natures clothed in the garb of external power. And thus the change of the individual Instinct into a compulsive Authority becomes the medium between the dominion of Reason as Instinct and the liberation from that dominion.

And finally, to complete this enumeration of the necessary divisions and Epochs of the Earthly Life of our Race:—We have said that through liberation from the dominion of Reason as Instinct, the Knowledge of Reason becomes possible. By the laws of this Knowledge, all the relations of Mankind must be ordered and directed by their own free act. But it is obvious that mere cognizance of the law, which nevertheless is all that Knowledge of itself can give us, is not sufficient for the attainment of this purpose, but that there is also needed a peculiar knowledge of action, which can only be thoroughly acquired by practice,—in a word, Art. This Art of ordering the whole relations of Mankind according to that Reason which has been already consciously apprehended, (for in this higher sense we shall always use the word Art when we employ it without explanatory remark)—this Art must be universally applied to all the relations of Mankind, and realized therein,— until the Race become a perfect image of its everlasting archetype in Reason;—and then shall the purpose of this Earthly Life be attained, its end become apparent, and Mankind enter upon the higher spheres of Eternity.

Thus have we endeavoured to pre-figure the whole Earthly Life of Man by a comprehension of its purpose;—to perceive why our Race had to begin its Existence here, and by this means to describe the whole present Life of humankind:—this is what we wished to do,—it was our first task. There are, according to this view, Five Principal Epochs of Earthly Life, each of which, although taking its rise in the life of the individual, must yet, in order to become an Epoch in the Life of the Race, gradually lay hold of and interpenetrate all Men; and to that end must endure throughout long periods of time, so that the great Whole of Life is spread out into Ages, which sometimes seem to cross, sometimes to run parallel with each other:—1st, The Epoch of the unlimited dominion of Reason as Instinct:—the State of Innocence of the Human Race. 2nd, The Epoch in which Reason as Instinct is changed into an external ruling Authority;—the Age of positive Systems of life and doctrine, which never go back to their ultimate foundations, and hence have no power to convince but on the contrary merely desire to compel, and which demand blind faith and unconditional obedience:—the State of progressive Sin. 3rd, The Epoch of Liberation,—directly from the external ruling Authority—indirectly from the power of Reason as Instinct, and generally from Reason in any form;—the Age of absolute indifference towards all truth, and of entire and unrestrained licentiousness:—the State of completed Sinfulness. 4th, The Epoch of Reason as Knowledge;—the Age in which Truth is looked upon as the highest, and loved before all other things:—the State of progressive Justification. 5th, The Epoch of Reason as Art;—the Age in which Humanity with more sure and unerring hand builds itself up into a fitting image and representative of Reason:—the State of completed Justification and Sanctification. Thus, the whole progress which, upon this view, Humanity makes here below, is only a retrogression to the point on which it stood at first, and has nothing in view save that return to its original condition. But Humanity must make this journey on its own feet; by its own strength it must bring itself back to that state in which it was once before without its own coöperation, and which, for that very purpose, it must first of all leave. If Humanity could not of itself re-create its own true being, then would it possess no real Life; and then were there indeed no real Life at all, but all things would remain dead, rigid, immoveable. In Paradise,—to use a well-known picture,—in the Paradise of innocence and well-being, without knowledge, without labour, without art, Humanity awakes to life. Scarcely has it gathered courage to venture upon independent existence when the Angel comes with the fiery sword of compulsion to good and drives it forth from the seat of its innocence and its peace. Fugitive and irresolute it wanders through the empty waste, scarcely daring to plant its foot firmly anywhere lest the ground should sink beneath it. Grown bolder by necessity, it settles in some poor corner, and in the sweat of its brow roots out the thorns and thistles of barbarism from the soil on which it would rear the beloved fruit of knowledge. Enjoyment opens its eyes and strengthens its hands, and it builds a Paradise for itself after the image of that which it has lost;—the tree of Life arises; it stretches forth its hand to the fruit, and eats, and lives in Immortality.

This is the delineation of Earthly Life as a whole and in all its various Epochs, which is necessary for our present purpose. As surely as our present Age is a part of this Earthly Life, which no one can doubt;—and further, as surely as there are no other possible Epochs of the Earthly Life but the five which we have indicated,—so surely does our Present Age belong to one of these. It shall be my business to point out, according to my knowledge and experience of the world, to which of these five it belongs, and to unfold the necessary phenomena in which the principles above stated must manifest themselves; and it will be yours to consider and observe whether you have not encountered these phenomena during your whole life both internal and external, and do not still encounter them;—and this shall be the business of our future lectures.

The Present Age considered as a whole, I mean;—for since, as I have remarked above, different Ages may, in perfect accordance with their spiritual principle, coexist in one and the same chronological Time, and even cross or run parallel to each other in different individuals, so it may be anticipated that such will be the case in our own Age, and hence that our application of the a priori principle to the present condition of the world and of humanity may not embrace all men alive in the present Time, but only those who are truly products of the Age and in whom it most completely reveals itself. One may be behind his Age, because in the course of his culture he has not come into contact with a sufficiently extensive mass of his fellowmen, but has been trained in some narrow circle which is only a remnant of a former Time. Another may be in advance of his Age, and bear in his breast the germs of a future Time, while that which has become old to him still rules around him in true, actual, present and efficient power. Finally,—Science raises itself above all Ages and all Times, embracing and apprehending the One Unchanging Time as the higher source of all Ages and Epochs, and grasping that vast idea in its free, unbounded comprehension. None of these three can be included in the picture of any present Age.

The object of our lectures in this course, during the present winter, is now strictly defined, and, as it seems to me, clearly enough set forth and announced;—and such was the purpose of to-day’s address. Allow me, further, a few words on the external form of these discourses.

Whatever maybe our judgment upon the Present Age, and in whatever Epoch we may feel ourselves compelled to place it, you are not to expect here either the tone of lamentation or of satire, particularly of a personal description. Not of lamentation:—for it is the sweetest reward of Philosophy that, looking upon all things in their mutual dependence, and upon nothing as isolated and alone, she finds all to be necessary and therefore good, and accepts that which is, as it is, because it is subservient to a higher end. Besides, it is unmanly to waste in lamentation over existing evil the time which would be more wisely applied in striving, so far as in us lies, to create the Good and the Beautiful. Not of satire:—an infirmity which affects the whole race, is no proper object for the scorn of an individual who belongs to that race, and who, before he could depict it, must himself have known it and cast it off. But individuals disappear altogether from the view of the philosopher, and are lost in the one great commonwealth. His thought embraces all objects in a clear and consequential light, which they can never attain amid the endless fluctuations of reality;—hence it does not concern itself with individuals and, never descending to portraits, dwells in the higher sphere of idealized conception. As to the advantages derivable from considerations of this kind, it will be better to leave you to judge for yourselves after you have gone through some considerable portion of them, than to say much in praise of them beforehand. No one is further than the philosopher from the vain desire that his Age should be impelled forward to some obvious extent through his exertions. Every one, indeed, to whom God has given strength and opportunity, should exert all his powers for this end, were it only for his own sake, and in order to maintain the place which has been assigned to him in the ever-flowing current of existence. For the rest, Time rolls on in the steadfast course marked out for it from eternity, and individual effort can neither hasten nor retard its progress. Only the coöperation of all, and especially of the indwelling Eternal Spirit of Ages and of Worlds, may promote it.

As to my present labours, it will be to me a flattering reward, if a cultivated and intelligent audience shall pass a few hours of this half year in an agreeable and worthy manner, raised above the business and pleasures of every-day life into a freer and purer region,—a more spiritual atmosphere. Above all, should it happen that upon some young and powerful mind a spark may fall which shall dwell and live there, and perhaps develop my feeble thoughts into better and more perfect results, and kindle a vigorous determination to realize them,—then would my reward be complete.

In this spirit I have been induced to invite you to such lectures as the present; in this spirit I now take my leave of you, and leave it to your own judgment whether you desire to proceed further in my company.