Mystics of the Renaissance - Rudolf Steiner - E-Book

Mystics of the Renaissance E-Book

Rudolf Steiner

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During the Renaissance science was never separated from mysticism and alchemy. Some of the finest minds such as Leonardo da Vinci and Isaac Newton were all heavily involved in what they would of called the mystic arts. 

In "Mystics of the Renaissance", published in 1911, Rudolf Steiner examines the thought of eleven less well known pioneers of scientific discovery and European mystics (Eckhart, Tauler, Suso, Ruysbroek, Nicholas of Cusa, Agrippa von Nettesheim, Paracelsus, Weigel, Boehme, Giordano Bruno, and Angelus Silesius) through a collection of essays and explains their ideas and how they relate to modern concepts.

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Table of contents




Meister Eckhart

Friendship With God (Tauler, Suso And Ruysbroeck)

Cardinal Nicholas Of Cusa

Agrippa Von Nettesheim And Theophrastus Paracelsus

Valentine Weigel And Jacob Boehme

Giordano Bruno And Angelus Silesius



Rudolf Steiner


The matter which I am laying before the public in this book formed the content of lectures which I delivered during last winter at the Theosophical Library in Berlin. I had been requested by Grafin and Graf Brockdorff ‘to speak upon Mysticism before an audience for whom the matters thus dealt with constitute a vital question of the utmost importance. Ten years earlier I could not have ventured to fulfil such a request. Not that the realm of ideas, to which I now give expression, did not even then live actively within me. For these ideas are already fully contained in my philosophy of Freedom (Berlin, 1894. Emil Felber). But to give expression to this world of ideas in such wise as I do today, and to make it the basis of an exposition as is done on the following pages— to do this requires something quite other than merely to be immovably convinced of the intellectual truth of these ideas. It demands an intimate acquaintance with this realm of ideas, such as only many years of life can give. Only now, after having enjoyed that intimacy, do I venture to speak in such wise as will be found in this book.

Any one who does not approach my world of ideas without preconceptions is sure to discover therein contradiction after contradiction. I have quite recently (Berlin, 1900. S. Cronbach) dedicated a book upon the world conceptions of the nineteenth century to that great naturalist, Ernst Haeckel, and closed it with a defence of his thought-world.

In the following expositions, I speak about the Mystics, from Master Eckhart to Angelus Silesius, with a full measure of devotion and acquiescence. Other "contradictions,” which one critic or another may further count up against me, I shall not mention at all. It does not surprise me to be condemned from one side as a "Mystic” and from the other as a “ Materialist.” When I find that the Jesuit Father Muller has solved a difficult chemical problem, and I therefore in this particular matter agree with him unreservedly, one can hardly condemn me as an adherent of Jesuitism without being reckoned a fool by those who have insight.

Whoever goes his own road, as I do, must needs allow many a misunderstanding about himself to pass. That, however, he can put up with easily enough. For such misunderstandings are, in the main, inevitable in his eyes, when he recalls the mental type of those who misjudge him. I look back, not without humorous feelings, upon many a “ critical” judgment that I have suffered in the course of my literary career. At the outset, matters went fairly well. I wrote about Goethe and his philosophy. What I said there appeared to many to be of such a nature that they could file it in their mental pigeon-holes. This they did by saying: “A work such as Rudolf Steiner’s Introduction to Goethe s Writings upon Natural Science may, without hesitation, be described as the best that has been written upon this question.”

When, later, I published an independent work, I had already grown a good bit more stupid. For now a well meaning critic offered the advice: “Before he goes on reforming further and gives his Philosophy of Freedom to the world, he should be pressingly advised first to work himself through to an understanding of these two philosophers [Hume and Kant].’’

The critic unfortunately knows only so much as he is himself able to read in Kant and Hume; practically, therefore, he simply advises me to learn to see no more in these thinkers than he himself sees. When I have attained that, he will be satisfied with me.

Then when my Philosophy and Freedom appeared, I was found to be as much in need of correction as the most ignorant beginner. This I received from a gentleman who probably nothing else impelled to the writing of books except that he had not understood innumerable foreign ones. He gravely informs me that I should have noticed my mistakes if I had “made more thorough studies in psychology, logic, and the theory of knowledge” ; and he enumerates forthwith the books I ought to read to become as wise as himself: “ Mill, Sigwart, Wundt, Riehl, Paulsen, B. Erdmann.”

What amused me especially was this advice from a man who was so “impressed” with the way he “understood” Kant that he could not even imagine how any man could have read Kant and yet judge otherwise than himself. He therefore indicates to me the exact chapters in question in Kant's writings from which I may be able to obtain an understanding of Kant as deep and as thorough as his own.

I have cited here a couple of typical criticisms of my world of ideas. Though in themselves unimportant, yet they seem to me to point, as symptoms, to facts which present themselves to-day as serious obstacles in the path of any one aiming at literary activity in regard to the higher problems of knowledge. Thus I must go on my way, indifferent, whether one man gives me the good advice to read Kant, or another hunts me as a heretic because I agree with Haeckel. And so I have also written upon Mysticism, wholly indifferent as to how a faithful and believing materialist may judge of me. I would only like— so that printers’ ink may not be wasted wholly without need— to inform any one who may, perchance advise me to read Haeckel’s Riddle of the Universe, that during the last few months I have delivered about thirty lectures upon the said work.

I hope to have shown in this book that one may be a faithful adherent of the scientific conception of the world and yet be able to seek out those paths to the Soul along which Mysticism, rightly understood, leads. I even go further and say: Only he who knows the Spirit, in the sense of true Mysticism, can attain a full understanding of the facts of Nature. But one must not confuse true Mysticism with the “ pseudo-mysticism” of ill-ordered minds. How Mysticism can err, I have shown in my Philosophy of Freedom (page 131 et seq.).

Rudolf Steiner

Berlin , September, 1901.


There are certain magical formulas which operate throughout the centuries of Man’s mental history in ever new ways. In Greece one such formula was regarded as an oracle of Apollo. It runs: “Know Thyself.” Such sentences seem to conceal within them an unending life. One comes upon them when following the most diverse roads in mental life. The further one advances, the more one penetrates into the knowledge of things, the deeper appears the significance of these formulas. In many a moment of our brooding and thinking, they flash out like lightning, illuminating our whole inner being. In such moments there quickens within us a feeling as if we heard the heart-beat of the evolution of mankind. How close do we not feel ourselves to personalities of the past, when the feeling comes over us, through one of their winged words, that they are revealing to us that they, too, had had such moments!

We feel ourselves then brought into intimate touch with these personalities. For instance, we learn to know Hegel intimately when, in the third volume of his Lectures on the Philosophy of History we come across the words: “Such stuff, one may say, the abstractions that we contemplate when we allow the philosophers to quarrel and battle in our study, and make it out to be thus or so—mere verbal abstractions!

No! No! These are deeds of the world -spirit and therefore of destiny. Therein the Philosophers are nearer to the Master than are those who feed themselves with the crumbs of the spirit; they read or write the Cabinet Orders in the original at once; they are constrained to write them out along with Him. The Philosophers are the Mystae who, at the crisis in the inmost shrine, were there and took part.” When Hegel said this, he had experienced one of those moments just spoken of. He uttered the phrases when, in the course of his remarks, he had reached the close of Greek philosophy; and through them he showed that once, like a gleam of lightning, the meaning of the Neoplatonic philosophy, of which he was just treating, had flashed upon him. In the instant of this flash, he had become intimate with minds like Plotinus and Proklus; and we become intimate with him when we read his words.

We become intimate, too, with that solitary thinker, the Pastor of Zschopau, M. Valentin Weigel, when we read the opening words of his little book Know Thyself, written in 1578:

"We read in the wise men of old the useful saying, 'Know Thyself,’ which, though it be right well used about worldly manners, as thus: 'regard well thyself, what thou art, seek in thine own bosom, judge thyself and lay no blame on others,' a saying, I repeat, which, though thus used of human life and manners, may well and appropriately be applied by us to the natural and supernatural knowing of the whole man; so indeed, that man shall not only consider himself and thereby remember how he should bear himself before people, but that he shall also know his own nature, inner and outer, in spirit and in Nature; whence he cometh and whereof he is made, to what end he is ordained."

So, from points of view peculiar to himself, Valentin Weigel attained to insight which in his mind summed itself up in this oracle of Apollo.

A similar path to insight and a like relation to the saying “ Know Thyself ” may be ascribed to a series of deep-natured thinkers, beginning with Master Eckhart (1250- 1327), and ending with Angelus Silesius (1624-1677), among whom may be found also Valentin Weigel himself.

All these thinkers have in common a strong sense of the fact that in man’s knowing of himself there rises a sun which illuminates something very different from the mere accidental, separated personality of the beholder. What Spinoza became conscious of in the ethereal heights of pure thought,— viz., that “the human soul possesses an adequate knowledge of the Eternal and Infinite Being of God,”—that same consciousness lived in them as immediate feeling; and self knowledge was to them the path leading to this Eternal and Infinite Being. It was clear to them that self-knowledge in its true form enriched man with a new sense, which unlocked for him a world standing in relation to the world accessible to him without this new sense as does the world of one possessing physical sight to that of a blind man.

It would be difficult to find a better description of the import of this new sense than the one given by J. G. Fichte in his Berlin Lectures (1813):

"Imagine a world of men born blind, to whom all objects and their relations are known only through the sense of touch. Go amongst them and speak to them of colours and other relations, which are rendered visible only through light. Either you are talking to them of nothing,—and if they say this, it is the luckier, for thus you will soon see your mistake, and, if you cannot open their eyes, cease your useless talking,— or, for some reason or other, they will insist upon giving some meaning or other to what you say; then they can only interpret it in relation to what they know by touch. They will seek to feel, they will imagine they do feel light and colour, and the other incidents of visibility, they will invent something for themselves, deceive themselves with something within the world of touch, which they will call colour. Then they will misunderstand, distort, and misinterpret it."

The same thing applies to what the thinkers we are speaking of sought after. They beheld a new sense opening in self knowledge, and this sense yielded, according to their experiences, views of things which are simply non-existent for one who does not see in self-knowledge what distinguishes it from all other kinds of knowing. One in whom this new sense has not been opened, believes that self knowing, or self-perception, is the same thing as perception through the outer senses, or through any other means acting from without.

He thinks: “Knowing is knowing, perceiving is perceiving.” Only in the one case the object is something lying in the world outside, in the other this object is his own soul. He finds words merely, or at best, abstract thoughts, in that which for those who see more deeply is the very foundation of their inner life; namely, in the proposition: that in every other kind of knowing or perception we have the object perceived outside of ourselves, while in self-knowledge or self-perception we stand within that object; that we see every other object coming to us already complete and finished off, while in ourselves we, as actors and creators, are weaving that which we observe within us. This may appear to be nothing but a merely verbal explanation, perhaps even a triviality; it may appear, on the other hand, as a higher light which illuminates every other cognition. One to whom it appears in the first way, is in the position of a blind man, to whom one says: there is a glittering object. He hears the words, but for him the glitter is not there. He might unite in himself the whole sum of knowledge of his time; but if he does not feel and realise the significance of self-knowledge, then it is all, in the higher sense, a blind knowledge.

The world, outside of and independent of us, exists for us by communicating itself to our consciousness. What is thus made known must needs be expressed in the language peculiar to ourselves. A book, the contents of which were offered in a language unknown to us, would for us be without meaning. Similarly, the world would be meaningless for us did it not speak to us in our own tongue; and the same language which reaches us from things, we also hear from within ourselves. But in that case, it is we ourselves who speak. The really important point is that we should correctly apprehend the transposition which occurs when we close our perception against external things and listen only to that which then speaks from within. But to do this needs this new sense. If it has not been awakened, we believe that in what is thus told us about ourselves we are hearing only about something external to us; we fancy that somewhere there is hidden something which is speaking to us in the same way as external things speak. But if we possess this new sense, then we know that these perceptions differ essentially from those relating to external things. Then we realise that this new sense does not leave what it perceives outside of itself, as the eye leaves the object it sees; but that it can take up its object wholly into itself, leaving no remainder. If I see a thing, that thing remains outside of me; if I perceive myself, then I myself enter into my perception. Whoever seeks for something more of himself than what is perceived, shows thereby that for him the real content in the perception has not come to light. Johannes Tauler (1300-1361), has expressed this truth in the apt words:

"If I were a king and knew it not, then should I be no king. If I do not shine forth for myself in my own self-perception, then for myself I do not exist. But if for myself I do shine out, then I possess myself also in my perception, in my own most deeply original being. There remains no residue of myself left outside of my perception."

J. G. Fichte, in the following words, vigorously points to the difference between self perception and every other kind of perception:

"The majority of men could be more easily brought to believe themselves a lump of lava in the moon than an 'ego.' Whoever is not at one with himself as to this, understands no thorough-going philosophy and has need of none. Nature, whose machine he is, will guide him in all the things he has to do without any sort of added help from him. For philosophising, self-reliance is needed, and this one can only give to oneself. We ought not to want to see without the eye; but also we ought not to maintain that it is the eye which sees."

Thus the perception of oneself is also the awakening of oneself. In our cognition we combine the being of things with our own being. The communications, which things make to us in our own language, become members of our own selves. An object in front of me is not separated from me, once I have known it. What I am able to receive from it becomes part and parcel of my own being. If, now, I awaken my own self, if I become aware of the content of my own inner being, then I also awaken to a higher mode of being, that which from without I have made part of my own being. The light that falls upon me at my awakening falls also upon whatever I have made my own from the things of the outside world. A light springs up within me and illumines me, and with me all that I have cognised of the world. Whatever I might know would remain blind knowledge, did not this light fall upon it. I might search the world through and through with my perception; still the world would not be that which in me it must become, unless that perception were awakened in me to a higher mode of being.

That which I add to things through this awakening is not a new idea, is not an enrichment of the content of my knowing; it is an uplifting of the knowledge, of the cognition, to a higher level, where everything is suffused with a new glory. So long as I do not raise my consciousness to this level, all knowledge continues to be for me, in the higher sense, valueless. The things are there without my presence. They have their being in themselves. What possible meaning could there be in my linking with their being, which they have outside and apart from me, another spiritual existence in addition, which repeats the things over again within me? If only a mere repetition of things were involved, it would be senseless to carry it out. But, really, a mere repetition is only involved so long as I have not awakened, along with my own self, the mental content of these things upon a higher level. When this occurs, then I have not merely repeated within myself the being of things, but I have brought it to a new birth on a higher level. With the awakening of myself, there is accomplished a spiritual re-birth of the things of the world.

What the things reveal in this re-birth did not previously belong to them. There, without, stands the tree. I take it up into my consciousness. I throw my inner light upon that which I have thus conceived. The tree becomes in me more than it is outside. That in it which finds entrance through the gate of the senses is taken up into a conscious content. An ideal replica of the tree is within me, and that has infinitely more to say about the tree than what the tree itself, outside, can tell me. Then, for the first time there shines out from within me, towards the tree, what the tree is. The tree is now no longer the isolated being that it is out there in space. It becomes a link in the entire conscious world that lives in me. It links its content with other ideas that are in me. It becomes a member of the whole world of ideas that embraces the vegetable kingdom; it takes its place, further, in the series of all that lives.

Another example: I throw a stone in a horizontal direction away from me. It moves in a curved line and after some time falls to the ground. I see it in successive moments of time in different places. Through observation and reflection I acquire the following: During its motion the stone is subject to different influences. If it were subject only to the influence of the impulse which I imparted to it, it would go on flying for ever in a straight line, without altering its velocity. But now the earth exerts an influence upon it. It attracts the stone towards itself. If, instead of throwing the stone, I had simply let it go, it would have fallen vertically to earth; and its velocity in doing so would have constantly increased. From the mutual interaction of these two influences arises that which I actually see.

Let us assume that I could not in thought separate the two influences, and from this orderly combination put together again in thought what I see: in that case, the matter would end with the actual happening. It would be mentally a blind staring at what happened; a perception of the successive positions which the stone occupies. But in actual fact, matters do not stop there. The whole occurrence takes place twice. Once outside, and then my eye sees it; then my mind causes the whole happening to repeat itself again, in a mental or conscious manner. My inner sense must be directed upon the mental occurrence, which my eye does not see, and then it becomes clear to that sense that I, by my own inner power, awaken that occurrence as a mental one.

Again, another sentence of J. G. Fichte’s may be quoted which brings this fact clearly before the mind.

"Thus the new sense is the sense for the spirit; that for which there exists only spirit and absolutely nothing else, and for which also the 'other,' the given being, assumes the form of spirit and transforms itself into spirit, for which therefore being in its own proper form has actually disappeared.... There has been the faculty of seeing with this sense ever since men have existed, and all that is great and excellent in the world, which alone upholds humanity, originates in what has been seen by means of this sense. It is, however, not the case that this sense has been perceived or known in its difference and its contrast with that other, ordinary sense. The impressions of the two senses melted into one another, life fell apart into these two halves without a bond of union."