Extract from a Lecture by
Dr. Rudolf Steiner,
January 28, 1923
The cultural ingredient that now permeates our whole external civilization began to rise to the surface at the turn of the 18th and 19th century. Think of the immense contrast between the present time and that time when a certain physicist prepared a frog’s leg which accidentally came into contact with the window … the frog’s leg quivered, and so he discovered electricity! How long ago was that? — Less than 150 years ago, yet electricity is now a cultural ingredient. Indeed, it is far more than this! You see, when the men of my age were young fellows, not one of them dreamt of speaking of the atoms in the sphere of physics otherwise than of tiny, unelastic, or even elastic spheres colliding with one another, and so forth, and then they calculated the results of these collisions. At that time, no one would have dreamt of conceiving the atom without further ado in the way which we conceive of it today: namely, as an electron, as an entity consisting altogether of electricity.
Human thought has spun itself altogether into electricity, and this occurred not so very long ago. Today we speak of the atoms as if they were small suns, centres around which electricity accumulates; we speak of electrons. Thus we suspect electricity everywhere, when we penetrate into the world’s mechanism. This is where our civilization so closely connects itself with a definite manner of thinking. If people would not travel on electric tramcars they would not think that the atoms are full of electricity.
If we now observe the connections that existed before the present age of electricity, we may say that they allowed the natural scientist of that time to imagine, at least abstractly, the spiritual in Nature. Although a tiny rest of scholastic realism remained, electricity then began to affect man’s nerves, expelling from them everything that tended towards the spiritual.
Things went still further. Even light, the honest light that surges through the world’s spaces, was gradually defamed and brought into the ill repute of resembling electricity! When we speak today, as I am speaking now, then the people whose heads are deeply submerged in the electric wave of civilization necessarily believe that this is utter nonsense. But this is only due to the fact that the people whose heads consider such things as nonsense drag themselves along (like dogs whose tongues are hanging out because of the heat) with a load of history, a load of historical concepts on their backs, so that they cannot speak in an unprejudiced way, from out of the immediate present.
You see, when we speak of electricity, we enter a sphere that presents a different aspect to the imaginative vision than that of the other spheres of Nature. So long as man remained within the light, within the world of sound, that is to say, in the spheres of optics and acoustics, it was not necessary to judge morally that which appeared in a stone, a plant, or an animal, either as colours in the sphere of light, or as sound in the world of tones; it was not necessary to judge these things morally, because he still possessed an echo, weak though it was, of the reality of concepts and ideas. Electricity, however, drove out this echo. And if today we are, on the one hand, unable to discover a reality in the world of moral impulses, we are, on the other hand, even less able to discover a moral essence in that sphere which is now considered to be the most important constituent of Nature.
Today, if we were to ascribe a real power to moral impulses, if we were to say that they contain a force enabling them to become sensory reality in the same way in which a plant’s seed becomes sensory reality, we would almost be looked upon as fools. And if someone were to come along today and ascribe moral impulses to the forces of Nature, he would be looked upon as a complete fool! But if you have ever allowed an electric current to pass through your nervous system, so as to experience it consciously with a genuine power of vision, you will realize that electricity in Nature is not merely a current but that electricity in Nature is, at the same time, a moral element. When we enter the sphere of electricity, we penetrate simultaneously into a moral sphere. If you connect your knuckle at any point with a closed current, you will immediately feel that your inner life extends to an inner sphere of your being, where the moral element comes to the surface, so that the electricity pertaining to the human being cannot be sought in any other sphere than that sphere which is also the source of the moral impulses. Those who can experience the whole extent of electricity, experience at the same time the moral element in Nature. Modern physicists have conjured and juggled about with electricity in a strange way, without the least suspicion. They imagine the atom as something electric, and through the general state of consciousness of the present time, they forget that whenever they think of an atom as an electric entity, they must ascribe a moral impulse to this atom, indeed, to every atom. At the same time, they must raise it to the rank of a moral entity. …But I am not speaking correctly … for, in reality, when we transform an atom into an electron, we do not transform it into a moral, but into an IMMORAL entity! Electricity contains, to be sure, moral impulses, impulses of Nature, but these impulses are IMMORAL; they are instincts of evil, which must be overcome by the higher world.
The greatest contrast to electricity is LIGHT. If we look upon light as electricity we confuse good and evil. We lose sight of the true conception of evil in the order of Nature, if we do not realize that through the electrification of the atoms we transform them into carriers of evil; we do not only transform them into carriers of death, as explained in my last lecture, but into carriers of evil. When we think of them as atoms, in general, when we imagine matter in the form of atoms, we transform these atoms into carriers of death; but when we electrify matter, Nature is conceived as something evil. For electric atoms are little demons of Evil. This, however, does not tell us much. For it does not express the fact that the modern explanation of Nature set out along a path that really unites it with Evil. Those strange people at the end of the Middle Ages, who were so much afraid of Agrippa von Nettesheim, Trithem of Sponheim, and others, so that they saw them walking about with Faust’s malevolent poodle, expressed this very clumsily, but although their thoughts may have been wrong, their feelings were not altogether wrong. For, when we listen to a modern physicist blandly explaining that Nature consists of electrons, we merely listen to him explaining that Nature really consists of little demons of Evil! And if we acknowledge Nature in this form, we raise Evil to the rank of the ruling world-divinity.
As modern men who do not proceed in accordance with old traditional ideas, but in accordance with reality, we would come across the fact that the electric element in Nature is endowed with morality in the same way in which moral impulses are endowed with life, with a life of Nature, so that, later on, they take on real shape, become a real world. In the same way in which the moral element one day acquires real shape in Nature, so the electric element once contained a moral reality. If we contemplate electricity today, we contemplate the images of a past moral reality that have turned into something evil.
If Anthroposophy were to adopt a fanatic attitude, if Anthroposophy were ascetic, it would thunder against the modern civilization based on electricity. Of course, this would be nonsense, for only world-conceptions that do not reckon with reality can speak in that way. They may say: “Oh, this is ahrimanic! Let us avoid it!” — But this can only be done in an abstract way. For the very people who thunder against Ahriman, and tell us to beware of him, go downstairs after their sectarian meeting and enter an electric tramcar! So that all their thundering against Ahriman, no matter how holy it may sound, is (excuse the trivial expression) simply rubbish. We cannot shut our eyes to the fact that we must live with Ahriman. But we must live with him in the right way, that is to say, we must not allow him to have the upper hand.