Sunday, November 9, 2014
Laughing and Weeping
Rudolf Steiner, Berlin, April 27, 1909:
This winter we have given a whole series of talks on spiritual science with the specific purpose of coming more closely in touch with the whole nature of man's being. We have looked at the great riddle of man from as many aspects as possible. Today we will make it our task to speak of something that is absolutely a part of everyday life. And perhaps, for the very reason that we start from something really commonplace, we shall see that life's riddles really encounter us on all sides, and that we ought to take hold of them, so that in understanding them we see into the depths of the world. For the things of the spirit, and altogether that which is greatest, is not to be sought in unknown distances, for it reveals itself in the most ordinary things of life. In the smallest most insignificant things of life we can find the greatest wisdom, if we can only understand this. Therefore let us include in this cycle of lectures this winter a study of the everyday theme of laughing and weeping from the spiritual scientific point of view.
Laughing and weeping are certainly very common things in human life. But only spiritual science can bring a deeper understanding of these phenomena, because spiritual science is the only thing that can penetrate into the deepest parts of man's being where he is distinctly different from the other kingdoms with whom he shares this globe. By virtue of the fact that man has acquired on this globe the greatest and most powerful share of divinity, he towers above his fellow creatures. Therefore only a knowledge and understanding that reaches the spirit will really fathom man's real nature. Laughing and weeping deserve to be properly observed and appreciated, for they alone can remove the preconception that would rank man's nature too close to that of animals. The way of thinking that would so dearly like to reduce man as near as possible to animal level, emphasises as strongly as it can that a high level of intelligence is to be found in the various accomplishments of animals, an intelligence often far superior to that of man. But this does not particularly surprise the spiritual scientist, for he knows that when the animal does something intelligent it does not arise out of an individual element in the animal but out of the group soul. It is very difficult, of course, to make the concept of the group soul convincing for external observation, even though it is not absolutely impossible. But one thing should be noticed, for it is accessible to any kind of external observation if it is extensive enough: the animal, neither weeps nor laughs. Certainly there will be people who maintain that animals also laugh and weep. But you cannot help such people if they do not want to know what laughing and weeping really imply, and therefore ascribe it to animals as well. A person who really observes the soul knows that the animal cannot weep but at the most howl, nor can it laugh but only grin. We must be alive to the difference between howling and weeping, grinning and laughing. We must go back to some very significant events if we want to throw light on the real nature of laughing and weeping.
From lectures given in various places, including Berlin, and particularly the one about the nature of the temperaments, you will remember that there are two streams in human life. One stream includes all the human capacities and characteristics we inherit from our parents and other ancestors, and which can be passed on to our descendants, and the other stream consists of the qualities and characteristics we have by virtue of being born an individuality. This stream takes on the inherited characteristics like a sheath, its own qualities and characteristics originating from past lives in previous incarnations.
Man is essentially a twofold being: one part of his nature he inherits from his forefathers, the other part he brings with him from earlier incarnations. Thus we differentiate between the actual kernel of man's being which passes from life to life, from incarnation to incarnation, and the sheaths surrounding it, comprising the inherited characteristics. Now it is true that the actual individual kernel of a man's being, that passes from incarnation to incarnation, is already united with his physical bodily nature before birth, so you should not imagine that when a man is born it is possible under normal conditions for his individuality to be exchanged. The individuality is already united with the human body before birth.
But at what moment this kernel of individuality can start its formative work on man is a different matter. The individual kernel is already in the child, as we said, when the child is born. But before birth as such it cannot bring to effect the capacities it has acquired in past lives. It must wait until after birth. So we can say that before birth there are active in man the causes of all those characteristics and qualities we can inherit from parents and ancestors. Although the kernel of man's being is there, as we said, it cannot take control until the child has come into the world.
When the child has entered the world this kernel of individuality begins to transform man's organism, assuming that circumstances are normal, of course, as it is different in exceptional cases. It changes the brain and the other organs so that they may become its instruments. Thus it is chiefly the inherited qualities that are visible in the child at birth, and little by little the individual qualities work their way into the general organism. If we wanted to speak of the individuality's work on the organism before birth, that is quite another chapter. We can for instance also say that the individuality is actively engaged in choosing his parents. But this, too, is basically done from without. All the work that is done before birth by the individuality takes place from without, for example through the mother. But the actual work of the individuality on the organism itself does not begin until the child has come into the world. And because this is so, the really human part can only start, little by little, to come to expression in the human being after birth.
To start with, therefore, the child has certain qualities in common with animal nature, and these are just those qualities that find their expression in today's subject, laughing and weeping. In the first weeks after birth the child really cannot either laugh or weep in the proper sense of the words. As a rule it is forty days after birth when the child cries its first tears and also smiles, because that is the moment when the kernel from previous lives first enters the body and works on it to make it a vehicle of expression. It is just this which gives man his superiority over the animal, that in the case of animals we cannot say that an individual soul passes from incarnation to incarnation. The basis of animal nature is the group soul, and we cannot say that what is individual in the animal is reincarnated. It returns to the group soul and becomes something that only lives on in the animal group soul. It is only in man that the fruits of his efforts in one incarnation survive and, after he has gone through Devachan, pass into a new incarnation. In this new incarnation it gradually transforms the organism, so that it becomes not only the expression of the characteristics of his physical ancestors but also of his individual abilities, talents, and so on.
Now it is just the activity of the ego in the organism that calls forth laughing and weeping in a being such as man. Laughing and weeping are only possible in a being that has his ego within his own organism and whose ego is not a group ego as it is with the animals. For laughing and weeping are nothing less than a delicate, intimate expression of the ego-hood within the bodily nature. What happens when a person weeps? Weeping can only come about when the ego feels weak in relation to what faces it in the environment. If the ego is not in the organism, that is, if it is not individual, the feeling of weakness in relation to the outer world cannot occur. Being in possession of ego-hood, man feels a certain disharmony in his relationship to the environment. And this feeling of disharmony is expressed in the desire to defend himself and restore the balance. How does he restore the balance? He does so in that his ego contracts the astral body. In the case of sorrow that leads to weeping, we can say that the ego feels itself to be in a certain disharmony with the environment, and it tries to restore the balance by contracting the astral body within itself, squeezing together its forces, as it were. That is the spiritual process underlying weeping. Take weeping as an expression of sorrow, for example. You would have to examine sorrow carefully in every single case, if you wanted to see what was causing it. For example, sorrow can be the expression of being forsaken by something you previously had. There would be a harmonious relationship of the ego to the environment if what we have lost were still there. Disharmony occurs when we have lost something and the ego feels forsaken. So the ego contracts the forces of its astral body, compresses it as it were, to defend itself against being forsaken. This is the expression of sorrow leading to tears, that the ego, the fourth member of man's being, contracts the forces of the astral body, the third member.
What is laughter? Laughter is something that is based on the opposite process. The ego tries as it were to loosen the astral body, to expand and stretch it. Whilst weeping is brought about by contraction, laughing is produced through the relaxing and expanding of the astral body. That is the spiritual state of affairs. Every time someone weeps, the clairvoyant consciousness can confirm that the ego is contracting the astral body. Every time someone laughs, the ego is expanding and making a bulge in the astral body. Only because the ego is active within man's being and not working as a group ego from outside can laughing and weeping arise. Now because the ego only gradually begins to be active in the child, and at birth it is not yet actually active, and has as it were not yet taken hold of the strings which direct the organism from within, the child can neither laugh nor weep in its earliest days but only learns to do so to the extent that the ego becomes master of the inner strings that are, in the first place, active in the astral body. And because everything spiritual in man finds expression in the body, and the body is the physiognomy of the spirit — condensed spirit — these qualities we have been describing are expressed in bodily processes. And we can learn to understand these bodily processes from the spiritual point of view if we become clear about the following:
The animal has a group soul, or we could say a group ego. Its form is imprinted upon it by this group ego. Then why has the animal such a definite form, a form that is complete in itself? This is because this form is imprinted upon it out of the astral world, and essentially it has to keep it. Man has a form, which, as we have stressed many a time, contains as it were all the other animal forms within it as a harmonious whole. But this harmonious human form, the human physical body, has to be more mobile within itself than an animal body. It must not have such a rigid form as an animal body. We can see that this is so in man's changing facial expressions. Look at the fundamentally immobile face of the animal, how rigid it is, and compare that with the mobile human form, with its change of gesture, physiognomy, and so on. You will admit that within certain limits, of course, man has a certain mobility, and that in a way it is left to him to imprint his own form on himself because his ego dwells within him. Nobody is likely to say that a dog or a parrot has as individual an expression of intelligence on its face as a human being, unless he were just making comparisons. Speaking of them in general it could certainly be so, but not individually, because with dogs, parrots, lions or elephants the general character predominates.
With man we find his individual character written in his face.
And we can see the way his particular individual soul forms itself more and more in his physiognomy, especially in its mobile parts. Man still has this mobility because man can give himself his own form from within. It is this fact of being able to work creatively on himself that raises man above the other kingdoms.
As soon as man changes the general balance of forces in his astral body from out of his ego this also appears physically in the expression of his face. The normal facial expression and muscular tension that a man has all day is bound to change when the ego makes a change in the forces of the astral body. When, instead of holding the astral body in its normal tension, the ego lets it go slack and expands it, it will work with less force on the etheric and physical bodies, resulting in certain muscles changing their position. So when in the case of a certain display of feeling the ego makes the astral body slack, certain muscles are bound to have a different tension from normal. Laughter, therefore, is nothing else than the physical or physiognomical expression of that slackening of the astral body that the ego brings about. It is the astral body, from within, under the ego's influence, that brings man's muscles into those positions that give him his normal expression. When the astral body relaxes its tension the muscles expand and laughter occurs. Laughter is a direct expression of the ego's inner work on the astral body. When the astral body is compressed by the ego in the grip of sorrow, this compression continues into the body, resulting in the secretion of tears which in a certain respect is like a flow of blood brought about by the compression of the astral body. This is what these processes really are. And that is why only a being that is capable of taking an individual ego into himself and working from out of it on himself can laugh and weep. The individuality of the ego begins at the point where the person is capable of tensing or relaxing the forces of the astral body from within.
Every time we see someone smiling or weeping we are confronting the proof of man's superiority over the animals. For in the astral body of the animal the ego works from outside. Therefore all the conditions of tension in the animal's astral body can only be produced from outside, and the inner quality of such an existence cannot express itself in an external form like laughter and weeping.
Now we shall see much more in the phenomena of laughing and weeping if we observe the breathing process when people laugh or cry. This enables us to see deeply into what is happening. If you watch the breathing of someone who is weeping, you will notice that it consists essentially of a long out-breath and a short in-breath. It is the opposite with laughing: a short out-breath and a long in-breath. Thus the breathing process changes when the human being is under the influence of the phenomena we have been describing. And you only need a little imagination to find the reasons why this must be so.
In the phenomena of weeping the astral body is compressed by the ego. This is like a squeezing out of the breath: a long out-breath. In the phenomenon of laughing there is a slackening of the astral body. That is just as though you were to pump the air out of a certain space, rarefy the air, and the air whistles in. It is like this with the long in-breath when you laugh. Here, so to say, in the change in the breathing process we see the ego at work within the astral body. That which is outside in the case of the animal, the group ego, can actually be glimpsed at work in man, for this particular activity is even accompanied by a change of breathing. Therefore let us show the universal significance of this phenomenon.
Animals have a breathing process that is so to speak strictly governed from outside and is not subject to the inner individual ego in the way it has been described today. That which sustains the breathing process and actually regulates it was called in the occult teaching of the Old Testament ‘Nephesh’. This is really what we call the ‘animal soul’. The group ego of the animal is the nephesh. And in the Bible it is stated quite correctly: And God breathed into man the nephesh — the animal soul — and man became a living soul. This is often wrongly understood, of course, because people cannot read such profound writings today, they are too biased. For instance when it says: And God breathed nephesh, the animal soul, into man, it does not mean He created it at that moment, for it already existed. It does not say that it was not previously in existence. It was there, outside. And what God did was to take what had previously been in existence outside as group soul and put it into man's inner being. The essential thing is to understand the reality of an expression like this. One can ask what came about through the fact that the nephesh was put into man? It made it possible for man to rise above the animals and to develop his ego with inner activity, so that he can laugh and cry and experience joy and pain in such a way that they work creatively in him.
And that brings us to the significant effect that pain and joy have in life. If man did not have his ego within him he could not experience pain and joy inwardly and these would have to pass him by meaninglessly. However, as he has his ego within him and can work from within on his astral body and consequently on his whole bodily nature, pain and joy become forces that can work creatively in him. All the joy and pain we experience in one incarnation become part of us, to carry over into the next incarnation; they work creatively in our being. Thus you could say that pain and joy became creative world forces at the same time as man learnt to weep and laugh, that is, at the same time as man's ego was put into his inner being. Weeping and laughter are everyday occurrences, but we do not understand them unless we know what is actually happening in the spiritual part of man, what actually goes on between the ego and the astral body when a man laughs or cries.
Now all that forms man is in continuous development. That man has the ability to laugh or cry is due to the fact that he can work on his astral body from out of his ego. This is certainly correct. But on the other hand man's physical body and also his etheric body were already predestined to have an ego working within them when man entered his first earthly incarnation. Man was capable of it. If we could squeeze an individual ego into a horse, it would feel highly uncomfortable in there, because it would not be able to do a thing; it could find no outlet for the individual work of the ego. Imagine an individual ego in a horse. The individual ego would want to work on the astral body of the horse by compressing or expanding it, and so on. But if an astral body is joined to a physical and etheric body that cannot adapt themselves to the forms of the astral body, then the physical and etheric bodies create a tremendous hindrance. It would be like trying to fight a wall. The ego inside the being of the horse would want to compress the astral body but the physical and etheric bodies would not follow suit, and this would drive the horse mad. Man had to be predestined for such an activity. For that to be so he had right at the beginning to receive the kind of physical body that could really become an instrument for an ego and could gradually be mastered by the ego. Therefore the following can also occur: The physical and the etheric body can be mobile within themselves, proper vehicles of the ego, so to speak, but the ego can be very undeveloped and not yet exercise proper mastery over the physical and etheric body. We can see this in the fact that the physical and etheric bodies act as sheaths for the ego but not so that they are a complete expression of the ego. This is the case with the kind of people who laugh and cry involuntarily, giggle on every occasion and have no control over the laughter muscles. This shows that they have a higher human nature in their physical and etheric bodies but have at the same time not yet brought their humanity under the control of the ego. This is why giggling makes such an unpleasant impression. It shows that man is at a higher level with regard to that which he can do nothing about than he is with regard to that which he can already do something about. It always makes such an unpleasant impression when there is a being who does not prove to be at the level to which external conditions have brought him. Thus laughing and weeping are in a certain respect absolutely the expression of the ego nature of man, because they can only arise through the fact that the ego dwells in the being of man. Weeping can be an expression of the most terrible egoism, for in a certain way weeping is only too often a kind of wallowing in sensual pleasure. The person who feels forsaken compresses his astral body with his ego. He tries to make himself inwardly strong because he feels outwardly weak. And he feels this inner strength through being able to do something, namely shedding tears. A certain feeling of satisfaction — whether it is admitted or not — is always connected with the shedding of tears. Just as in different circumstances a kind of satisfaction is obtained from smashing a chair, tears are often shed for no further reason than the sensual pleasure of inner activity; pleasure wearing the mask of tears, even if the person is not conscious of it.
Laughter can be seen to be a kind of expression of ego nature because if you really enquire into it you will find that laughter can always be attributed to the fact that the person feels superior to the people and happenings around him. Why does a person laugh? Someone invariably laughs when he fancies himself to be above what he sees. You can always find this statement verified. Whether you are laughing at yourself or at someone else your ego is always feeling superior to something. And out of this feeling of superiority it expands the forces of its astral body, broadens and puffs them up. Strictly speaking this is what is really at the root of laughter. And this is why laughter can be such a healthy thing. And this pluming oneself should not be condemned in the abstract as egoistic, for laughter can be very healthy when it strengthens man's feeling of selfhood, especially if it is warranted and leads him beyond himself. If you see something in your surroundings or in yourself or others that is absurd, a feeling of being above such absurdity is sparked off and makes you laugh. It is bound to happen that man feels superior to something or other in the environment, and the ego brings this to expression by expanding the astral body.
If in the breathing process you understand what we tried to explain with the statement: And God breathed nephesh into man, and man became a living soul, you will also sense the connection this has with laughing and weeping, for you know that whilst laughing and weeping even man's breathing process itself changes. By means of this example we have shown that really the most everyday things can be understood only when we take spirit as the starting point. We can understand laughing and weeping only when we understand the connection between the four members of man's being. In the days when people still to some degree possessed clairvoyant traditions and had at the same time the ability to portray the gods with real imagination, they portrayed them as happy beings, whose chief quality was a kind of happy laughter. And not for nothing did people ascribe howling and gnashing of teeth to those regions of world existence in which primarily something resembling exaggerated egoism holds sway. Why was this? It was because laughter on the one hand signifies a raising of oneself, a setting up of the ego above its environment; that is, the victory of the higher over the lower. Whereas weeping signifies a knuckling under, a withdrawal from what is outside, a becoming smaller, the ego feeling forsaken, a withdrawal into itself. Sadness in life is so moving, because we know that it will and must be overcome, but how very different, hopeless and not at all moving is the appearance of sorrow and tears in that world where they can no longer be overcome. There they appear as the expression of damnation, of being cast into darkness.
We must pay good attention to these feelings that can come over us when we make a broad survey of what comes to expression in man as the work of the ego upon itself, and follow them up in their subtlest details. Then we shall have understood a great deal of things that meet us in the course of time. We must be conscious of the fact that there is a spiritual world behind the physical, and that what appears in human life as the alternations between laughing and weeping, when we meet them apart from man, appear on the one hand as the happy light of Heaven and on the other hand as the dark, bitter misery of Hell. These two aspects are absolutely there at the root of our world, and we must understand our middle world as deriving its forces from these two realms.
We shall get to know many more things about the being of man. But I would like to say that one of the deepest chapters on the being of man is that of laughing and weeping, despite the fact that laughing and weeping are such everyday occurrences. The animal does not laugh or cry because it does not have the drop of divinity within it that man bears in his ego-hood. And we can say that when in the course of his life the human being begins to smile and to weep, this proves to anyone who can read the great script of nature that a divine spark is really living within man, and when a man laughs this spark of God is active in him seeking to raise him above all that is base. For smiling and laughing are elevating. On the other hand when a man weeps it is again the spark of God warning him that his ego could lose itself if it did not strengthen itself inwardly against all feelings of weakness and of being forsaken. It is the God in man admonishing the soul, in laughing and weeping. This accounts for the wrath that comes over anyone who understands life when he sees unnecessary weeping. For unnecessary weeping betrays the fact that instead of living and feeling with the environment, the pleasure of being within ones own ego is too great. But bitter feelings also arise in anyone who understands the world when the elevating of the ego above its surroundings, which otherwise expresses itself in healthy laughter, is found in someone as an end in itself, as indiscriminate laughter, or as malicious criticism. For he realises that if the ego does not draw into itself all it can from its environment, and does not want to live with its environment, but raises its ego nature above it without cause, then this ego nature will not have the necessary depth or necessary upward thrust that we can only acquire by taking from the environment everything we possibly can for the development of the ego. Then the ego will move backwards instead of forwards. The right balance between sorrow and joy makes a tremendous important contribution to human development. When sorrow and joy are not just within a man's own self but have their justification in the environment, and when the ego wants to establish the correct relationship between sorrow and joy and the surrounding world all the time, then sorrow and joy will be real evolutionary factors for man.
Great poets often find such beautiful words for the kind of sorrow and joy that are in no way rooted in arrogance nor in a contraction of the ego but originate out of the relationship between the ego and the environment, where their balance has been disturbed from outside, and which alone explains why a man laughs and weeps. We can understand it because we can see that it is in and through the outer world that the relationship between ego and outer world has been disturbed. That is why man must laugh or weep; whereas if it only lies within man, we cannot understand why he is laughing or crying because then it is always unfounded egoism. That is why it is so moving when Homer says of Andromache, when she is under the twofold grip of concern for her husband and concern for her baby: ‘She could laugh while she cried!’ This is a wonderful way of describing something normal in weeping. She is neither laughing nor weeping on her own account. The right relationship is there with the outside world, when she has to be concerned about her husband on the one hand and on the other about her child. And here we have the true relationship of laughing and weeping, that they balance one another: smiling while crying — crying while laughing. A natural child often expresses itself this way too, for its ego has not become so hardened in itself as later on in adulthood, and it can still cry while it laughs and laugh while it cries. And the one who understands these things can again ascertain the fact that whoever has overcome his ego to the point of no longer seeking the causes of laughter and weeping in himself but finding them in the outer world, can also laugh while he cries and cry while he laughs. Indeed, in what goes on around us every day, we have, if we understand it, the real expression of the spiritual. Laughing and weeping are something which can in the highest sense be called the physiognomy of the divine in man.