collected works

How Can Today’s Poverty of Soul be Overcome?

8 lectures in Germany and Switzerland, February 16 – December 3, 1916 (CW 168)


The Connection between the Living and the Dead

(CW 168)

“What may be seen in the thoughts and memories left behind in the souls of those who love the dead is certainly added to the world that the dead need directly, but it also elevates, improves the existence of the dead. We could compare this to art in the physical world, but there is no comparison, because it is uplifting for the dead, an improvement, in a sense far superior to the way in which art improves the physical world for us. Thus, it has a deep meaning when we unite our thoughts with those of the dead.” (from the first lecture)


The year is 1916. Europe is entering the third year of the most devastatingly brutal war yet known. The high hopes and idealistic expectations for the newly dawned twentieth century have been very quickly met with the murderous visage of modern warfare. (The death toll would eventually reach 35 million souls.) Such is the context and ever-present background to these presentations, informing both their mood and content. 

Rudolf Steiner gave these eight lectures to the members of the Anthroposophical Society in various European cities throughout 1916, and they are all heartfelt attempts to address—practically—some of the fundamental questions living strongly in his listeners, who must be always be considered, to some degree, as co-creators of the content:



Given the fundamental reality of reincarnation, how do the so-called dead remain connected to us? What meaning do these countless sacrificial deaths have? What are the immediate experiences of those who have died?


These are a few of the burning questions addressed. The answers given are anything but theoretical. But there is something else here, as well. It could be summed up by the title of the lecture given in Zürich on October 10, 1916, that forms the heart of this collection: “How Can Today’s Poverty of Soul be Overcome?” “Today” refers not just that early-twentieth-century today; rather, it means the epoch in which we are now living, and overcoming our “poverty of soul”—and Steiner's wholeheartedly human advice for doing so—becomes increasingly valid and more urgent with each passing moment.

Lecture 4: How Can Today’s Poverty of Soul be Overcome?

Rudolf Steiner, Zürich, October 10, 1916

What we seek as spiritual-scientific truths should not be just a dead knowledge for us, but a living one. It should be knowledge that can really find its way into our life, into all aspects of our life, and at the most important points in our life. Spiritual science today is often taken in quite abstractly. And people—especially those who have little understanding of spiritual science—may even come to a sort of detached knowledge that initially proves to be unfruitful for life, and they then have the following impression: “What does it matter that we know human beings are made of so-and-so many parts or members, and that humanity has evolved through different cultural epochs and will continue to evolve, and so on?” For those who believe, according to today’s demands, that people should be completely present in practical life, spiritual science often seems quite unproductive. And it is often conveyed as being unproductive, even by those who already have some heart and feeling for it.

Nevertheless, spiritual science itself, as it is, is something infinitely full of life; it can come alive even in the most exoteric practices in life; and it also must come alive for the sake of the future. Today I would like to make this clear with a particular example by choosing something from our spiritual science that we all presumably know, that is well known to us, and to show how it will gradually become even more enlivened by our looking at it as being full of life.

Most of you will have heard before that our time was preceded by the so-called fourth post-Atlantean cultural period, in which the Greeks and Romans were the most important peoples. The impulses of this fourth post-Atlantean cultural period influenced the following centuries into the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. We have been Lecture 4 How Can Today’s Poverty of Soul be Overcome? Zürich, October 10, 1916 How Can Today’s Poverty of Soul be Overcome? h 71 in the fifth post-Atlantean cultural period since the fifteenth century. We have been born into this period in our current incarnation, and human beings will live in this fifth cultural period for many centuries to come. We know, furthermore, and have often let it flow through our souls (at least, most of us have) that humanity particularly advanced outer culture and outer work during the fourth post-Atlantean—the Greco-Roman—cultural period, which developed the so-called intellectual- or mind-soul at that time. Our task now is to develop the consciousness soul.