Rudolf Steiner on the Alphabet. An Essay
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If speech elevates man, who has elevated speech?
IN VERY ancient times man was able to manifest the divine giant (spiritual) forces living within him with the help of his organs of speech. Speech as a whole later underwent a development. Thus, today we distinguish the consonant from the vowel element in speech. What is more, through the various spheres of learning lies a half conscious recognition of something, which in earlier days, existed in instinctive clarity, namely that speech is a preeminent characteristic of the cosmic evolution of mankind. For "speech elevates man above the other kingdoms of nature," says Rudolf Steiner.
We may, through appropriate meditation, succeed in penetrating the memory representations we have inside, so that we perceive what normally lies beneath the threshold of consciousness. And we can then hear something sounding within - Rudolf Steiner calls it the echo of the music of the spheres.
He also affirms that beneath the threshold of consciousness there lives what may be called a universal tragedy of mankind. It is this: When man wakes up in the morning and his ego and astral body dive down into his etheric body and his physical body, he does not perceive these bodies from within outwards in the sense of man living in his temple, his building, which is a castle of bones and sinews and so on. Man is supposed to express and in part conduct himself from within out in his temple and not be totally steered and controlled from outside. Besides, a lot depends on how he relates to the cosmos at large.
The letters we speak - A, B, C, and so on - function in other ways than most ways considered today, holds Steiner, and goes into remote teachings for most people. Here is a sample:
What would be expressed by speaking the names of the alphabet consecutively, would not be the abstraction we have today when we say A, B, C, without any accompanying thoughts, but it would be the expression of the Mystery of Man and of how his roots are in the universe . . . I have previously called your attention to how a real understanding of the Alpha — Aleph in Hebrew — leads us to recognize in it the desire to express Man in a symbol. If one seeks the nearest modern words to convey the meaning of Alpha, these would be: 'The one who experiences his own breathing'.
"Through the letters of the alphabet, man gained knowledge of the stars," he continues.
"It is necessary . . . that man should go back, in a fully conscious way, to the true reality which for a time had to recede into the background to enable man to develop his freedom.Man's original word of truth, his word of wisdom, was lost. Speech was poured out over the matter-of-factness of life.The poet . . . attempts to return to its inspired archetypal element."
Thus, in Rudolf Steiner's grand view we "we must plunge beneath memory to perceive the primal source of evil in human beings, but then something else can also be perceived." What could it be? Inspiration and experience hand in hand, it seems:
"As long as Man called the first letter of the alphabet 'Alpha', he experienced a certain amount of inspiration in it, but the moment he called it just 'A', the letters conformed to outer convention, to the prosaic aspects of life, replacing inspiration and inner experience. . . . men of culture became estranged from the spiritual world of poetry. –
The wisdom in the astronomy of those times was not presented in the same way as the learning contained in any branch of knowledge today, which is built up from single perceptions and concepts. It was conceived as a revelation that made itself felt on the surface of human experience, either in the form of an axiomatic truth or as part of an axiomatic truth. Thus a concrete experience was represented with a part of the primal wisdom.What was the alphabet? It was what the heavens revealed through their fixed stars and through the planets moving across them. When the alphabet was spoken out of the original, instinctive, human wisdom it was astronomy that was expressed," says Steiner.
'Beta' speaks of something lost or missed
"WHEN IN every individual thing there echoes a consciousness of man being an expression of the whole cosmos, will the way he cleared for the forces needed for man's progress, if civilization is not to decline into utter barbarism." How? In part like this: "The visible rays which go out of his eye into the other man are thrown back, and he experiences it in his consciousness." ◊
And the name 'Beta' considered with an open mind, turning here to the Hebrew equivalent, represents something of the nature of a wrapping, a covering, a house. Thus, if we were to put our experience on uttering 'Alpha, Beta,' into modern language we could say: 'Man in his house'. And we could go through the whole alphabet in this way." Thus a modern decline is indeed indicated.
"Look back on a time in the evolution of humanity when Man, in repeating his alphabet, did not express what was related to external events, external needs, but . . . brought to expression through his larynx and his speech organs."
"The original idea was organic. There the unit is the greatest and the following numbers always appear as being smaller and are all contained in the unit."
We pass into concrete cosmic speech if we say: Man consists of the echo of the Zodiac, of the echo of the planetary movements, of the experience of the impression of the planetary movements in thinking, feeling and willing, and in the perception of the echo of the Zodiac".◊
If a man could look through himself inwardly he would have to admit: I am an etheric body, in other words, I am the echo of cosmic vowels; I am a physical body, in other words, the echo of cosmic consonants. Because I stand here on the earth, there sounds through my being an echo of all that is said by the signs of the Zodiac; and the life of this echo is my physical body. An echo is formed of all that is said by the planetary spheres and this echo is my etheric body.
Man is constituted out of the echo of the heavens, of the fixed stars, of the echo of the planetary movements, of what is experienced of the echo of the planetary movements, and of what knowingly experiences the echo of the fixed star heavens.
The secrets of the cosmos found expression in the letters. The single vowel was brought into connection with its planet, the single consonant with the single sign of the Zodiac.
Do not go beyond what is fairly safe where you are
NORMALLY we do not penetrate man's actual being beyond this recollection.
Remember what elevates you. Speech has tall origins, says Steiner. Mantra yoga is formed to make use of speech for elevation too. And his teachings in the matter may become dangerous business too, where people in power do not agree with anthroposophy's view or the views of ancient Egypt, India, and further.
Rudolf Steiner: "The Alphabet: An Expression of the Mystery of Man." 1 lecture given in
Dornach, December 18, 1921. GA 209. Mercury Press, 1985.
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