An Etymological Exploration into the Human Experience
David Tresemer, PhD
First published Spring 2017
The word Anthropos is difficult to pronounce. Some parents of children at Waldorf schools make it through eight years of parent meetings and school events without ever getting the syllables right. But it’s well worth understanding.
Anthropology, Anthropocene, Anthroposophy, and just a few other words have Anthropos in them. The etymologists judge that the root comes from two sources. First anthro came from the proto-Indo-European ner, meaning virgorous, vital, strong, man, human. Later came opos, genitive of ops, meaning eye or face. Anthropos is the vital human being with eyes and face. Savoring the “n” and “r” sounds (and their accompanying eurythmy gestures) activates its root meaning.
When Rudolf Steiner wrote or spoke Anthropos, it is sometimes translated as man; when Steiner wrote or spoke Mensch, it is translated as man. The word man was not always associated with the male gender, and Steiner did not intend that limitation. Mannus (according to the historian Tacitus) meant, for the Germanic tribes, the progenitor of the species (and Mannaz was the rune of the human being). In Hindu mythology, the progenitor was Manus. Thus the teacher Mani can be seen as a kind of highly developed primal human. The character of Everyman in dramas of the Middle Ages was an average representative of humanity who reported on his or her adventures; average, so that everyone could identify with Everyman. Some trace the word man to manus, both Latin and Sanskrit for hand; man is the one who mani-pulates; the one with hands.
Mensch means more than male; it references everyone’s experience, even hinting at a general overall human experience.
To the philosophers of Gnosticism (too often maligned by those who don’t read widely in Gnosticism) Anthropos became more than an Everyman. Anthropos was understood as the progenitor of humanity; also as the possible human being; but most importantly, as Humanity itself. From Anthropos we come; to Anthropos we return. The progress made in each of our lives, in the soul growth that each of us is able to accomplish, furthers the development of Humanity as a whole, of Anthropos. Vague references to this can be found here and there, as when Neil Armstrong alighting on the surface of the moon said, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Consider this: if we were all completely separate, as modern science tends to portray human beings, why do we have a generally positive nature toward meeting another? How is it that we feel, even when traveling among very different kinds of people, a kind of kinship or similarity of perception and experience? Exceptions could be named, but they are all less than the feeling of common fellowship. Why do fishermen, upon hearing that an airplane has gone down in the ocean, start up their boats to go help? The Darwinian evolutionary explanation does not do the phenomenon of altruism justice. Anthropos does.
Why does research show that we have intuitive interconnections with others, including telepathy and empathy? Note the words have pathos in them, meaning that we can enter into a feeling for the struggles of another. This is a small part of our participation in Humanity/Anthropos.
Something shifted with the Enlightenment. The dramatic poem by Lord Byron, Manfred, written in 1817, illustrates a turning point. Manfred has adventures, and at the end he dies. Moving toward his death, first devils come for him, then angels come. Manfred proclaims he will not fight death, but, relying on “superior science…strength of mind—and skill,” strongly rejects all spirits. Anything beyond what science can demonstrate repeatedly, unchangingly (oh, the thrill of those times when science seemed capable of finally pinning down that shapeshifter Proteus!) is rejected. However, the nature of the unseen is transformation, never appearing the same way twice; not only the shapeshifter Proteus, but the invisible as well! Best to ignore it.
In Byron’s Manfred, we have an artistic rendering of the intelligent and willful Manfred who, fired by the promise of enlightenment through science, banishes the rest into the dark. The angels and other spirits are not actually disempowered; they are simply made to disappear—ignored, forgotten. It opens the way for humans to be defined as separate, competitive, indeed violent, with a gloss of niceness to veil their survival-rage. Steiner spoke of this era, this two thousand years of time, as bringing us into the Consciousness Soul Era, whose early stages emphasize awakening to one’s individuality as separate from the tribal mind. The early stages are marked by narcissism, separation, loneliness, lack of conscience, and looking-out-for-number-one. Past the early stages, our developing human consciousness has attained in some, and shall attain for the rest, an awake (rather than asleep) participation in the good of all; liberty in thinking, equality of feeling, and fraternity/sorority in working (willing), in service of the larger task of Humanity/Anthropos.
When that occurs (and for some it already has occurred), the notion of Anthropos/Humanity as a living being will be welcomed again. (Note that esoteric Judaism has this understanding in Adam Kadmon; esoteric Christianity in the body of Christ to whom one devotes one’s life learnings; and Theosophy in the Monad.)
The consequences of accepting that one is a part of the living being Anthropos revolutionizes one’s feeling about the self. It turns one away from frivolities, although it does not turn one against fun. Joy in this beautiful place is part of our gift to Anthropos. This realization changes one’s attitude to psychopathology; it views anxiety and depression, and all the other dysfunctions, as a temporary veering away from a path of personal maturation. In my Solar Cross work (linking qualitative images with the first-breaths, births, of clients), I am often able to say, “Picture yourself prior to conception, making choices about what challenges to take on in the coming incarnation.” To the more advanced, I can say, “Consider how your choices of challenges have made you stronger, in service of something greater.” Anthropos is that something greater, Humanity.
Rudolf Steiner’s twenty-four-foot high sculpture of the Representative of Humanity offered a picture in three dimensions meant to inspire all of us. The representative of Humanity has come from Humanity/Anthropos, and returns the fruits of his or her struggles to Humanity/Anthropos.
More about the task of Anthropos in relation to Sophia in a future column.