The Origin of Suffering – Steiner – 1906 Part One



Berlin, 8th November, 1906.

The next three lectures of this winter’s cycle will have more of an inner connection than the others, that is: Today’s upon the origin of suffering, the next upon the origin of evil, and the following: Illness and Death. Yet each of these three lectures will be complete and comprehensible in itself.

When man looks at the life around him, when he examines himself and tries to investigate the meaning and significance of life, he finds before life’s door a remarkable figure — in part a warning figure, in part a completely enigmatic one: Suffering.

Suffering, so closely bound up with what we shall consider in the next lectures on evil, illness and death, seems to man sometimes to grip so deeply into life as to be connected with its very greatest problems. Hence the problem of suffering has occupied the human race since earliest times, and whenever there is an endeavour to estimate the value of life and to find its meaning, people have above all tried to recognize the role played by suffering and pain.

In the midst of a happy life suffering appears as a destroyer of peace, as a damper-down of the pleasure and hope of life. Those who see the value of life in pleasure and happiness are those who feel the most this peace-destroyer, suffering. How else would it be explicable that in a people so full of joy and happiness of life as the Greeks, such a dark spot in the starry heavens of the beauty of Greece could arise as the saying of the wise Silenus? Silenus in the train of Dionysos asks: What is the best for man? The best for man is not to be born, and if he is once born, then the second best is to die soon after birth. Perhaps you know that Friedrich Nietzsche in seeking to grasp the birth of tragedy out of the spirit of ancient Greece linked on to this saying in order to show how, on the basis of Greek wisdom and art, suffering and man’s sadness over suffering and all connected with it play a role full of significance.

But now we find another, hardly much later, saying from ancient Greece. It is a short phrase which shows how a glimmering arises that the pain and sorrow of the world do not play merely an unhappy role. It is the expression which we find in one of the earliest Greek tragedians, Aeschylos, that out of suffering grows knowledge. Here are two things brought together, one of which no doubt a great part of mankind would like to blot out, whereas it looks on the other, knowledge, as one of the highest possessions of life.

People at all times have believed that they must recognise that life and suffering are deeply entwined — at least the life of modern man and of the higher creatures on our globe. Thus at the beginning of the Biblical story of Creation the knowledge of good and evil and suffering are intimately bound up with one another. Yet we also see on the other hand, in the midst of the Old Testament conception how, out of a dark view of sorrow, a bright light-filled one dawns. When we look around us in the Old Testament and study the Creation story in regard to this question it is clear that suffering and sin were brought together, that suffering was looked on as the consequence of sin. In the modern mode of thinking, where the materialistic concept of the world penetrates everywhere, it is no longer easy to grasp how the cause of suffering can be sought for in sin. But through spiritual research and the power to look back into earlier ages, it will be found to be not so meaningless to believe in such a connection. The next lecture will show us that it is possible to see a connection between evil and suffering. But for ancient Jewry it was impossible to explain the cause of suffering. We see in the centre of this view that brings suffering and sin into connection the remarkable figure of Job. It is a figure which shows us, or is meant to show us, how suffering and unspeakable pain can be connected with a completely guiltless life, how there can be unearned pain and suffering. We see dawning in the consciousness of this unique tragic personality, Job, yet another connection of pain and suffering, a connection with the ennobling of man. Suffering appears to us then as a testing, as the root of a climbing upwards, of a higher development. Suffering in the sense of this Job-tragedy need in no way have its origin in evil, it can itself be first cause, so that what proceeds from it represents a more perfect phase of human life. All of that lies somewhat remote from our modern thinking, and the generality of our modern educated public can find but little connection with it. You need only think back in your life, however, and you will see how perfection and suffering very often appeared together and how mankind has always been aware of this connection. Such a consciousness will form a bridge to what we are to consider today in the light of spiritual investigation, namely, the connection between suffering and spirituality.

Remember how in some tragedy the tragic hero has stood before your eyes. The poet leads the hero again and again through suffering and conflicts full of suffering until he comes to the point where pain reaches its climax and finds relief in the end of the physical body. Then there lives in the soul of the spectator not alone sympathy with the tragic hero and sadness that such sufferings are possible, but it appears that from the sight of suffering man was exalted and built up, that he has seen the suffering submerged in death and that out of death has come the assurance that victory exists over pain. Yes, even over death. Through nothing in art can this highest victory of man, this victory of his highest forces and impulses, victory of the noblest impulses of his nature be brought so sublimely before the eyes as by a tragedy. When the experience of pain and suffering has preceded the consciousness of this victory, and, from the deeds that can again and again take place before the eyes of the spectator in the theatre, we look up to what is still felt by a great part of modern humanity as the highest fact of all historical evolution; when we look up to the Event which divides our chronology into two parts — to the Redemption through Christ Jesus — then it can strike us that one of the greatest upliftings, one of the greatest upbuildings and hopes of victory which has ever taken root in the heart of man has sprung from the world historic sight of suffering. The greatly significant feelings, cutting deep into the human heart, of the Christian world-conception, these feelings which for so many are the hope and strength of life, give the assurance that there is an eternity, a victory over death. All these supporting and uplifting feelings spring from the sight of a universal suffering, a suffering that befalls innocence, a suffering occasioned through no personal sin.

So we see here too that a highest element in the consciousness of humanity is linked to suffering. And when we see how these things, small and great, ever again rise to the surface, how they actually form the elemental part of the whole of human nature and consciousness, then it must indeed seem to us as if in some way suffering is connected with the highest in man.

This was only meant to point to a basic impulse of the human soul which continually asserts itself and which stands as a great consolation for the fact that there is suffering. If we now enter more intimately into human life we shall find phenomena which show us the significance of suffering. We shall have to point here symptomatically to a phenomenon which perhaps seems hardly connected; but, if we nevertheless examine human nature more closely, we shall see that this phenomenon too points to the significance of certain aspects of suffering.

Think once more of a work of art, a tragedy. It can only arise if the poet’s soul opens wide, goes out of itself and learns to feel another’s pain, to lay the burden of a stranger’s suffering upon his own soul. And now compare this feeling not perhaps just with a comedy — for then we should get no good comparison — but with something which in a certain way also belongs to art, with the mood which gives rise to caricature. This mood, perhaps with ridicule and derision, draws in caricature what goes on in the soul of the other and appears in external action. Let us try to put before us two men of whom the one conceives an event or a human being tragically, while the other grasps it as caricature. It is not a mere comparison, not a mere picture when we say that the soul of the tragic poet and artist appears as if it went out of itself and became wider and wider. What, however, is revealed to the soul through this expansion? The understanding of the other person. One understands the life of another through nothing so much as by taking upon one’s own soul the burden of his pain. But what must one do if one wants to caricature? One must not go into what the other feels, one must set oneself above it, drive it away, and this driving from oneself is the basis of the caricature. No-one will deny that just as through tragic compassion the other personality becomes deeply comprehensible, what appears in the caricature is what lives in the personality of the caricaturist. We learn to know the superiority, the wit, the power of observation, the phantasy of the one caricaturing rather than the one caricatured.

If we have shown in some way that suffering is nevertheless connected with something deep in human nature then we may hope that through a grasp of the actual nature of man the origin of pain and suffering can also become clear to us.


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