Saturday, March 26, 2011
The physical body, the etheric body, the astral body, and the ego
Theosophy and Rosicrucianism. Lecture 2 of 14
Rudolf Steiner, June 17, 1907:
Yesterday we spoke in an introductory way of the aim and essence of the spiritual-scientific movement; today we shall penetrate more directly into the essence of this science. It has the disadvantage that it may shock those who are not familiar with these things, but we must have patience and realize that many things which seem almost nonsensical at first will in the course of time appear well-founded and comprehensible.
Of the subject which lies before us, we shall first of all consider the nature of the human being.
Let us place this human being before our soul. He is a most complicated being, the most complicated being of all which we encounter in the known world. Those who possessed a deeper insight have therefore always called man a microcosm, in contrast to the macrocosm, the universe. Paracelsus used a very fine comparison expressing man's being in the form of an image. He said: Contemplate Nature around you, and imagine every being in Nature, every plant, animal, and stone, as the letter of an alphabet, and if you imagine a word written with these letters, you obtain man.
We find, in this connection, the confirmation of Goethe's words, that we must understand the whole of Nature in order to understand man.
To begin with, my explanations will only be a kind of sketch of man's nature. This will be related to the explanations of the following days in the same way in which a charcoal sketch is related to the finished picture.
If we contemplate man with our physical senses, when he stands before us as an earthly being, if our eyes perceive him and our hands can touch him, we look upon him, from the materialistic standpoint, as complete, as a whole being. Yet a deeper — that is to say, a spiritual — contemplation of the world sees in that which is perceptible to our physical senses only a small part of the human being, that part which the anatomist dismembers and dissects, The anatomist endeavors to understand the human being through the intellect, by dissecting the visible part into cells which can only be perceived through the microscope, and he thinks that he thus obtains an idea of the structure and activity of the single organs.
Ordinary science thinks that all this constitutes the physical body of man. But at the present time man's physical body is frequently looked upon in the wrong way, for people think that the human being standing before them consists only of a physical body. This is not the case at all, for higher members of human nature are intimately connected with the physical body, are active through it, and it is through these members that this body becomes manifest in the form in which one human being confronts another. The physical body would present an altogether different aspect were we to separate it from the higher members of human nature. Man has this physical body in common with the whole mineral world. All the substances and forces which are active in mineral substances, such as iron, arsenic, carbon, etc, are also active in the substances of the human body and in the physical body of animals and plants.
Our attention is immediately drawn to the higher members of human nature if we once realize the tremendous difference which exists between man's physical body and the other physical substances which surround us in the mineral world. You will know that this wonderful structure of the physical body bears within it what we call inner life, consciousness, desires, joy and pain, love and hate; this physical body does not only contain substances pertaining to the mineral world, but also thoughts. You may indeed perceive the glow upon the countenance, or the color of the hair, but you do not perceive what takes place within the physical body in the form of inclinations and dislikes, joy and suffering, etc, All this we do not see; nevertheless it takes place within the covering (sheath) of the skin. This is the most evident and irrefutable proof that there is something in addition to the physical body, something besides mere physical substances.
When you watch a tear falling, this tear is but the physical expression of sorrow, which is an inner process, Now look upon the mineral world: these minerals are dumb! You cannot perceive in them any joy or sorrow, nor any other inner life. The stone has no feelings and no consciousness such as we have. To a spiritual scientist this stone appears like the nails upon our fingers, or like the teeth. Observe one of your fingernails: it has no feeling, no consciousness; nevertheless the nail forms part of your being. There must be something within us which brings about the formation of nails and teeth, and in the same way there must be something in the world outside which produces minerals. The nails themselves have no consciousness, but they form part of something which is endowed with consciousness. If a small beetle creeps over one of our nails, this nail perhaps appears to it as a mineral. This is the case when we creep over the Earth, without being aware that behind this mineral Earth there is consciousness, even as there is consciousness behind our nails. Later on we shall see what kind of consciousness lies at the foundation of the mineral world. This ego-consciousness of the mineral world lies high above us, even as, for instance, the consciousness of the small beetle creeping over our nail is surpassed by our own consciousness behind the nails.
The Rosicrucian philosophy ascribes this consciousness of the mineral kingdom to a world which it calls the WORLD OF INTELLIGENCE; there lies the consciousness of minerals, and there lies also the foundation of human intelligence, enabling us to form thoughts. Yet the thoughts which live in us are very deceptive, for human thoughts are related to the Beings of the Intelligent World in the same way in which our shadow is related to our real self. Even as the shadow upon the wall is not I, but only my own shadow, so man's thoughts are only shadow-pictures in the world of the spirit. But here on Earth we are able to grasp a thought because in the Intelligent World there is a real Being who produces this thought. This is a world in which our thoughts are real beings, whom we encounter in the same way in which we here meet other human beings. This Intelligent World of the Rosicrucians is for an initiate the higher Devachan World, the Arupa Devachan of the Hindus, or the higher Mental World. When an initiate passes through the physical world, every portion of the Earth speaks to him of life, and he experiences everywhere the manifestations of another world. Since in our physical body we are nothing but portions of the physical world, we also have a subordinate physical consciousness, reaching as far as the Intelligent World, that is to say, as far as the consciousness of the mineral world.
Our physical body is therefore, in its substances, of mineral nature, and the consciousness of the physical body lies there where the consciousness of the mineral world is to be found.
What is, however, the difference between our physical body and a mineral — for instance, a rock crystal? If we compare our body with a crystal, we find upon comparison that our body is a most complicated thing, Let us picture to ourselves the difference between a mineral and a living being.
In regard to the substances, there is no difference at all, for exactly the same substances can be found in living beings as in minerals, except that the structure is far more complicated.
If you have before you the mineral and its form, you will find that it remains the same if it only depends upon itself. But this is not the case in a living being, in a plant, an animal, or a human being. As soon as a substance takes on so complicated a form that it can no longer be held together through its own forces — in other words, that it would decay if left to itself — there is something in this substance which prevents if from decaying, and in that case we have before us what we call a LIVING BEING.
Spiritual science therefore says: A living being would decay into the component parts of its substances if it were left to itself, if within it there did not exist something which prevents this decay. That which every moment prevents this living being from decaying, the preventing factor of such a decay, is what we call the etheric or the vital body. This is of an entirely different nature from the substances which constitute the physical body in every living being, and it has the capacity to produce the most complicated physical substances, to maintain them, and to prevent their decay. What a living organism thus reveals in a purely external form is what we call LIFE. This etheric or vital body, or this body of formative forces, cannot be perceived by physical eyes, but it can be perceived through the first degree of clairvoyant vision, and it is the task of a clairvoyant to develop himself so as to be able to perceive this etheric body. Modern natural science does indeed try to discover the etheric body, but it tries to form a conception of it in a purely speculative way, by speaking, for instance of vital force, or vital energy.
How does the etheric body appear to a clairvoyant eye, that is to say, to the clairvoyant?
If you contemplate an object of the mineral world — for instance, a rock crystal — through the eye of a clairvoyant, eliminating for this purpose the physical substance by deviating, as it were, your attention from it, you would see nothing in the space occupied by the physical crystal. This space is void. But if you contemplate in the same way a living being — a plant, an animal, or a human being — this space occupied by the physical body will not be empty, for it will be filled up by a kind of shape of light, and this is the above-mentioned etheric body.
The etheric body is not of the same kind in every living being; on the contrary, it takes on very different forms, even as regards shape and size in relation to the physical body of the living being in question; this varies according to the stage of development of the different beings. The etheric body of plants has quite a different shape from the plants themselves; the etheric body of animals has a greater resemblance to the external shape, and the etheric body of man appears as a shape of light which corresponds almost exactly to the form of the physical body. If we contemplate, for instance, a horse from this standpoint, we see its etheric body protruding rather far from the head as a shape of light, but it more or less resembles the shape of the horse's head. But in the case of an average man of today we can see his etheric body protruding only slightly above the head and its sides. In regard to the substance of the etheric body, one generally has quite wrong ideas. Even in theosophy people write and talk a lot of confusing nonsense on the etheric body; but this forms part of the “childhood illnesses” of the Theosophical Society, and they must be overcome. To obtain a correct idea of the substantiality of the etheric body, please try to follow my thoughts in this comparison: —
Imagine that you have one hundred dollars and that you spend more and more: Your property will grow smaller and smaller and finally you will have nothing at all. This would be the least possible substantial state of your property. But there is one still less substantial: when you diminish still more the zero-stage of your property by making debts and acquiring a “negative” property. You can therefore reduce your property still more, for you have less than nothing if you borrow, for instance, ten dollars.
Or imagine this applied to something else. Imagine a battle with its tremendous noise; if you go further away from it the noise will grow weaker and weaker; the silence will grow until you finally hear nothing more. If you reduce still further this stage of hearing nothing at all, then it will be more than silent around you, more than soundless ... Such a silence actually exists, and it is in the highest degree blissful, though an ordinary person will not so easily be able to imagine it.
Now imagine these examples applied to the density of substance. At first you will have the three generally known aggregate conditions: the solid, liquid, and gaseous conditions; but in accordance with the above-mentioned example of the property, you should not remain by these three conditions. Even as it is possible to dilute the property into a “negative” property, so the substance can also become thinner and thinner, more and more diluted, beyond the gaseous stage. Imagine therefore a kind of substance opposed to the physical substance; this will give you a kind of idea of that which constitutes the etheric body.
A “negative” property has the opposite qualities of a positive one, for a “plus” property makes us rich, and a “minus” property poor; the more money I have, the more I can buy; the less money I have, the less I can buy. In the same way, the cosmic ether, of which the etheric body of every living being is a part, has the opposite qualities of physical substances.
Even as physical substance has the inclination to fall asunder, to decay, so the etheric body has the inclination to hold everything together, preventing the physical body which it permeates from decaying. As soon as the etheric body abandons the physical body — in other words, when physical death arises — the decomposition into the elemental parts immediately sets in. W, have thus traced matter into a world where it has the opposite effect of our physical matter.
When I say that man's etheric body resembles his physical body, I mention a fact which must be borne in mind and which must be mentioned here, for it will give rise to important conclusions in the following lectures. This statement must be subjected to an important limitation, for in reality the etheric body differs greatly from the physical body and resembles it only in its upper part, in the head; but it differs from it greatly in regard to the fact that it is of opposite sex: man's etheric body is feminine, and woman's etheric body is masculine. Every human being is therefore bisexual; the sex of the physical body is only an external expression, having its opposite pole in the etheric body. Even as a magnet has a north pole and a south pole, even as a magnet cannot have only a north pole, so we also find two poles in man: the pole and the counter-pole.
The etheric or vital body, also called the body of formative forces, therefore constitutes the second member of man's being, and from birth to death it remains intimately connected with man's physical body, and when the etheric body severs itself from the physical body, this signifies death.
The physical body is first built up by the etheric body; the etheric body is, so to speak, the architect of the physical body. If you wish to have a picture for this, take that of water and ice: When the water cools down, it takes on another shape, it becomes ice. Even as ice is formed out of water through condensation, so the physical body is formed out of the etheric body.
Ice — water : physical body — etheric body; this means, that the forces of the etheric body have become tangible, physically perceptible in the physical body. Even as the water already contained the forces which then manifest themselves in the solid ice, so the etheric body already contains all the forces needed for the structure of the physical body. The etheric body thus already contains a force producing, for example, the heart, or the stomach, or the brain, and so forth. For each organ of our physical body there is a predisposition in the etheric body; these predispositions are not substances, but currents of forces.
Man has the etheric body in common with every plant and animal, that is to say, with every physical being manifesting LIFE,
Now we may ask: Do the plants have a kind of consciousness such as we have found for the world of the minerals? We have already seen that spiritual research discovers the consciousness of minerals in the higher Intelligent World, the origin of our thoughts.
Even as our fingers do not have a consciousness of their own, for the consciousness of the finger forms part of man's consciousness, so the plants form part of a state of consciousness lying on the lower Intelligent World, in the heavenly world (Rupa Devachan). When the spiritual investigator enters this world, he encounters in it the souls of the plants. There, the souls of the plants are Beings, such as we are beings here on Earth; and these Beings are related to the plants in the same way in which man is related to his fingers.
The consciousness of plants is therefore rooted in this lower Devachan World. In it are rooted the forces which lie at the foundation of every growth and of every organic structure; in it are also rooted the forces which build up our physical body, that is to say, the forces of our etheric body, which we have already designated as the architect of our physical body. This consciousness of the vegetable world is far higher and wiser than the consciousness of man,
You will realize this at once if you bear in mind the wise structure not only of man's physical body but of every being permeated by an etheric body, that is to say, of every living being. What enormous wisdom is needed to build up the simplest physical body of any living being; not to mention the most wonderful structure all living beings on earth: the human body!
Observe, for instance, man's upper thigh bone; how wonderfully and in accordance with every rule of architecture the single little osseous joists and beams are put together! In its upper part, the upper thigh bone is far more complicated than it appears to us externally; for it is composed of a trestle of beams whose angles are arranged so skillfully that the weight of the whole body is borne by the least quantity of matter; truly a far greater work of art than the most complicated bridge construction; no engineering skill in the world could imitate it!
Or contemplate the structure of the heart: it is built so wisely that man with all his wisdom is but a child in comparison to that wisdom which reveals itself in the structure of the heart. How many things does the human heart withstand, though man's foolish attempts to ruin it every day, for instance, through our so-called stimulants — coffee, alcohol, nicotine.
Forces reaching as far as the astral world are needed for the construction of such a wonderful edifice as our physical body; only the Beings of this astral world are, trivially speaking, clever enough to build up such a physical body.
And now we come to the third member of man's being. Plants have a physical body and an etheric body; but they lack something which both man and the animals have; they have no pain, no desires, no sufferings, and no sensations whatever. This is the difference between man and animal on the one side, and the plants on the other. The difference consists therein that inner processes take place in the animals and in man. From processes observed in plants, modern science even seeks to ascribe sensations to plants. It is a shame to see how concepts are being misused! These are no inner processes, as in the case of a sensation — such sensations might just as well be ascribed to a blue litmus paper. Such mistakes arise if sensations are looked for in the physical world; no sensation can be found in the physical world in a phenomenon of the kind which may be observed in certain plants, for we must rise up to heavenly worlds if we wish to find sensations in plants. To prevent misunderstandings, let me add that in the case of so-called reacting plants, for instance, in the mimosa, the sensitive process of reaction does not reflect itself in the physical world as a sensation, but only in the lower Intelligent World, the seat of the plant's consciousness. Here, in the physical world, only man and animals have instincts and passions, joys and pains. Why? — Because they have, in addition to the physical and etheric body, also the astral body, the third member of human nature.
To a clairvoyant seer, the astral body appears in such a way as to envelop the whole human being in an egg-shaped cloud, and within this cloud every sensation comes to expression, every instinct and every passion. The astral body is therefore the carrier of desire, pain, suffering, and joy. This third member presents a different aspect from the etheric body and the physical body. When man is asleep, only the physical and the etheric body lie upon the bed, whereas the astral body and the ego are lifted out; but when the astral body and the etheric body go out of the physical body, then death arises, and with it the decay of the physical body.
Why is this third member called astral body? — No more appropriate name could be found for it! Why? — Because this member has an important task which we must bear in mind. At night, this astral body is not inactive, for then it works upon the physical and etheric body, and the clairvoyant seer can observe this. During the day, we use up our physical and etheric body, for everything we do uses up the physical body, and the expression of this is fatigue. Now the astral body repairs what we use up during the day. The astral body really eliminates fatigue while we are asleep. This shows the importance and necessity of sleep. The clairvoyant seer can do this repair-work consciously. The refreshing element of sleep depends on the fact that the astral body has worked in the right way upon the physical and astral bodies. But since the astral body must first return into the physical and etheric bodies, the refreshment of sleep arises gradually, that is to say, about one hour after waking up.
Something else, something important, is also connected with the fact that the astral body goes out during sleep. When the astral body enters in connection with the external world during the waking life of daytime, it must live together with the physical and etheric body; but when it extricates itself from the body, that is to say, during sleep, it is freed from these fetters of the physical and etheric body. Then something wonderful arises; the forces of the astral body then reach as far as the starry world, where the soul-Beings of the plants are to be found, and it draws its strength from that world. The astral body reposes in a world where the stars are embedded. This is the world of the Harmony of the Spheres, according to the Pythagoreans. It is a reality and not a mere fancy. If we live consciously in this world, we can hear the harmonies of the spheres, we can hear the stars resounding in their reciprocal forces and relations. In this sense, Goethe was an initiate, and in this meaning we should read the beginning of the Prologue in Heaven of Faust: —
“Die Sonne tönt nach alter Weise
In Bruderspharen Wettgesang,
Und ihre vorgeschriebene Reise
Vollendet sie mit Donnergang.
Ihr Anblick gibt den Engeln Stärke,
Wenn keiner sie ergründen mag;
Die unbegreiflich hohen Werke
Sind herrlich, wie am ersten Tag.”
(Translation after Latham)
“The sun, with many a sister-sphere,
Still sings the rival psalm of wonder,
And still his fore-ordained career
Accomplishes with tread of thunder.
The sight sustains the angels' prime,
Though none may spell the mystic story;
Thy Works, unspeakably sublime,
Live on, in all their primal glory.”
People do not know Goethe, and as a rule they are not aware that he was an initiate, for they simply say: A poet needs images ... . Yet Goethe knew that the Sun stands in the midst of a choir and that it resounds as Spirit of the Sun! Goethe therefore remains by this image and continues: —
“Horchet! Horcht dem Sturm der Horen!
Tönend wird für Geistesehren
Schon der neue Tag geboren.
Felsentore knarren rasselnd,
Phöbus' Räder rollen prasselnd;
Welch Getöse bringt das Licht!
Es drommetet, es posaunet,
Auge blinzt and Ohr erstaunet,
Unerhörtes hört sich nicht.”
(Translation after Latham)
“Hark! The Hours in storm are winging,
And to spirit ears loud-ringing,
Now the new-born day is springing.
Rocky portals clang asunder,
Phoebus' wheels roll forth in thunder,
What a tumult brings the light!
Loud the trump of dawn hath sounded,
Eye is dazzled, ear astounded,
The Unheard no ear may smite.”
During the night, the astral body lives in this world of stars. During the day it comes into a kind of disharmony of wordly things, whereas at night, during sleep, it is once more embedded in the world of the stars. And in the morning it returns with the forces which it brings along from this world. From the astral world we bring with us the harmony of the spheres, when we awake from sleep! The real home of the astral body is the world of the stars, the astral world, and that why it is called astral body.
Now we have learned to know three parts of human nature: the physical body, the etheric body, and the astral body.
The fourth part, the ego, we shall learn to know next time. The ego is that member which raises man above the animal and makes of him the crown of creation.
The animal does not have man's consciousness, although it has a certain kind of consciousness, just as we have seen it in the case of the plant and of the mineral; but the consciousness of animals lies in the astral world. Man's fourth member, the ego, constitutes with the other three members the “holy fourfold essence” of man, of which all the ancient Schools speak.
Man therefore has the physical body in common with the mineral, the etheric body in common with the plants, and the astral body in common with the animal. He alone has an ego, and this raises him above the others. In man we find, as it were, the essence of everything which we see spread out 'round about us. In fact, a microcosm! We must therefore first learn to know our environment, if we wish to know man.
We should therefore think of these three members, of these three bodies, as sheaths, woven in different regions, and we live — that is to say, our ego lives — in these sheaths, together with the higher .members of human nature, together with our immortal part.