History as symbol

Albert Schmelzer

Goethe was a born student of nature, but with regard to history he was a sceptic. Did not different witnesses present an event in quite different, sometimes contradictory ways? Did not national or religious preconceptions destroy the pure observation of the event? Accordingly he has his Faust say:

“My friend, the past is a book with seven seals; what you call the spirit of the times is basically the spirit of the gentlemen themselves in which the times are reflected.”

Goethe was well aware of the difficulties of gaining a knowledge of and writing down history. He knew that the first step was to reconstruct the events as precisely as possible through a careful study and meticulous verification of the sources. But that in itself did not get him very far. Because a simple list of dates and facts does not yet reveal the really interesting things: what moves history? What drives it forwards? What forces are at work in it? To strike the spark of historical life from the “slag heaps of past centuries” requires the artist, or more precisely: the artist’s precise imagination. It is the latter which is able to give substance to historical figures: they way they spoke, moved, acted – these things should be vivid, alive, pictorial before us. But the chronicler is more than someone who “creates the pictures for the chronicle”, he cannot be satisfied with lining up individual figures next to one another. On the contrary, his aim is to draw the tableau of an epoch. For that he needs to use his constructive imagination which eliminates what is irrelevant, emphasises what is important and creates connections. Goethe refers in this context to the emblem or symbol. Complex relationships are illuminated in the symbol like in a “spiritual mirror”. That is precisely what Goethe did in his historical dramas, Götz von Berlichingen and Egmont, thereby capturing historical motifs of the early modern age and Dutch history. Rudolf Steiner picked up Goethe’s approach and developed it further. He uses the concept of the “symptom” as a key to the deeper dimensions of history.

Imagination leads to understanding

Steiner recommends a vividly pictorial approach; for him, too, the imagination is the organ of historical understanding. It is the case, however, that a systematic approach – and that is the key factor in history lessons – requires that the imagination is truly precise and subjects itself to historical critique and the veto of the sources. If we try to draw a tableau of the history of the modern age, we cannot but think of the event in which the great social ideas of modernity – freedom, equality and fraternity – were to be realised: the French Revolution. There is powerful anticipation as the Estates-General are summoned, great is the enthusiasm as the National Assembly gets its way in 1789 and the delegates swear the oath to give France a new constitution.

15 years later: Napoleon crowns himself emperor. What happened to the original ideals? Freedom of the press is suppressed, personal freedom threatened by police spies operating throughout the land. A considerable meritocracy is introduced and given titles and estates – this new aristocracy is personally indebted to Napoleon. And fraternity? Europe is overrun by wars...

In Germany, too, which is still a patchwork of principalities, the liberal ideas begin to gain a foothold and here also there is great enthusiasm. But what happens to these ideas? The revolution of 1848 fails and German unity is not realised until Bismarck and the Second German Empire after the wars against Austria and France. Here state authority does not emanate from the people but lies with the rulers. Intellectual and cultural life is gagged by censorship, the social question is alleviated, at best, but not resolved through the introduction of health and accident insurance as well as the old age pension. Furthermore, the neighbouring French have been humiliated – one of the conditions leading to the First World War. If we try to compare these pictures, we can see similar developments: innermost soul impulses break open, they are justified, lofty, full of strength. But they reach an impasse and turn into their opposite.

Understanding requires feeling

What do the symptoms above indicate? If we experience these events inwardly as we study them, we find awakening and decay, enthusiasm and disappointment; the seeds of life in the first phase of modernity are followed by death processes in the second. That gives us an inner picture, an imagination of our time.

But how does such a transformation from euphoria to disillusionment occur? In inwardly feeling our way through the way that these forces work – an activity involving inspiration – we will discover that this is not something which is alien to us: we are familiar in our personal life with the swing of the pendulum indicated above between ideas which warm us, make us enthusiastic and thrill us, and thoughts which are reflecting, cool and cynical. These forces are also at work as essential spiritual forces in history, their traces visible in the symptoms as described. But such knowledge bears the challenge within it to awaken in response to the death processes and to structure the social life out of the equilibrium of engaged heart forces in such a way that a human future becomes possible. This endeavour leads us into the sphere of intuition: into a connection with the spirit of our time penetrated by knowledge and will.