Rudolf Steiner, Berlin, December 13, 1906:
Today's subject must obviously concern everyone, for illness and death enters the lives of all; usually it is unbidden and often in a way that is upsetting and even frightening. Death is indeed life's greatest riddle, so much so that the individual who could solve it would have solved also the other great riddle, that of life itself.
It is said that death is a riddle that no one ever has, or ever will solve. People who speak like that have no notion of the arrogance the words imply, nor of the fact that a solution to the riddle does exist, but a solution they fail to understand.
As we are dealing with a far-reaching and important subject, I ask you to bear especially in mind that all we can do is to attempt to answer the specific question, How can illness and death be understood? It is not possible to go into special cases of illness and health; we must confine ourselves to the question of how understanding can be reached concerning these two most important riddles of existence.
The well-known words of Saint Paul: “The wages of sin are death,” were for centuries regarded as an answer, a solution to the question concerning death. Nowadays these words have lost their meaning for most educated people. Modern people are unable to see how sin, which belongs to the sphere of morality and is connected with human behavior, can have anything to do with a physical fact such as death. Nor do we see any connection with illness.
Furthermore, the word “sin” is today used in a narrower, more materialistic sense. At the time of Saint Paul, the word was not taken to refer to ordinary failings or shortcomings, nor to anything extreme. The word sin was regarded as being connected with actions done for egoistic or selfish reasons, in contrast to impartial, objective actions. Here we must bear in mind that egoism and selfishness indicate that a person's “I” has reached a stage of independence and self-consciousness. These are aspects that must be taken into account if we are to understand the mind of a spirit such as that of Saint Paul.
Those who wish to reach a deeper understanding of the Old and New Testaments, who strive to grasp their deeper aspects, will be aware of a definite, one might say instinctive, philosophic current that runs through these records. It can be summed up by saying: All living creatures, in all realms of nature, strive towards a particular goal. Those belonging to lower species are still indifferent to pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow, but we find that as life reaches higher levels things change. Those who shudder at the idea of teleology must realize that we are dealing with facts, not putting forward a theory. Every living being, at all levels including that of human beings, strives towards a specific target, a summit for all living creatures: the attainment of individual consciousness.
The initiates from whom the Old and New Testaments originated looked down to the animal kingdom and saw how all striving is directed towards the eventual attainment of an independent personality endowed with its own inclinations, and its own impulses to action. They also saw that to the independent personality belonged the possibility of egoistic selfish behavior.
A thinker like Paul would say: “If a personality capable of egoistic deeds dwells in a body, then that body is of necessity mortal. A soul possessing independence, self-consciousness, and consequently egoism would never be able to inhabit an immortal body.” The two go together: self-conscious personality with one-sidedly developed impulses, and a mortal body. This is what in the Bible is termed “sin,” and what Paul defines as: “The wages of sin are death.” You will realize that not only this, but also other sayings in the Bible must be modified to be understood. In the course of centuries their meaning has changed, sometimes to the opposite. However, the modification must not alter the original meaning; we must endeavor to transform the meaning given by modern theology into the original one. It will then be discovered that often the issue concerned is not only far more profound than thought at first sight, but also can be readily understood even today. This explanation is necessary in order to see things in the right perspective.
Throughout the ages, thinkers searching for a world conception have concerned themselves with the riddle of death — a riddle to which during thousands of years the most varied solutions have been offered. We cannot go into a historical survey of these solutions; it must suffice to mention just two philosophers, in order to show that contemporary thinkers have nothing substantial to contribute to the issue either.
Take for example a thinker like Schopenhauer. Those who have read this sentence will be acquainted with his pessimistic outlook: “Life is a disagreeable affair; I shall spend mine pondering it.” And they will realize that he could not arrive at any other conclusion than: “Basically death is the consolation for life, and life the consolation for death; for life is miserable; it can be endured only because of the knowledge that death puts an end to it. On the other hand, if one fears death, it is a consolation to know that life is no better, that nothing is lost by dying.” That is Schopenhauer's pessimistic view. He makes the Earth-Spirit say: “If new life is continuously to arise, then I need space.” At least Schopenhauer was aware that, as life forever brings forth new life, the old must die to provide new space. But as you can see, he provides nothing of significance to the problem of death; what he says elsewhere on the subject only reflects the same view.
In his last book Eduard von Hartmann concerns himself with the riddle of death. He says: “When we consider the most highly evolved being, man, we find that after one or two generations he no longer understands the world. Once a person is old he no longer understands the young. That is why the old must die and the new continuously arrive.” Thus, here again, nothing is said that throws light on the riddle of death.
Anthroposophy, or spiritual science, would wish to contribute to present-day world views what it has to say about the cause of illness and death. However, it must first be made clear that, unlike other sciences, spiritual science cannot speak in such an easy manner; it cannot treat every subject alike. Today's natural scientists do not understand that when illness and death are considered, a distinction must be made between humans and animals. In fact, if today's lecture is to be comprehensible, we must restrict it to that which applies to humans. Few of the things said today will apply to either the animal or vegetable kingdom. This is because the beings of the various kingdoms do not have certain abstract similarities; each kingdom has its own specific characteristic. In the main we shall speak only of human beings; anything else will be brought up merely for the sake of clarification.
For an understanding of illness and death in relation to human beings, it is important to bear in mind that, as spiritual science explains, a person is an extremely complex being. An individual's nature can only be understood on the basis of these following four members: first, the externally visible, physical body; second, the ether or life body; third, the astral body; and fourth, the “I,” or the center of the being. We must recognize that the forces and substances of the physical body are the same as those found in the physical world outside, and further that the ether body, which we have in common with the vegetable kingdom, contains the forces that call the physical substances to life. The astral body, which we have in common with the animal kingdom, is the bearer of the life of feelings, craving, pleasure and pain, joys and sorrows. The “I” makes human beings the crown of creation, for that an individual alone possesses.
When we consider a person's physical organism, we must be aware of the fact that within it the other three members are at work; they are the architects and contain the formative forces. The physical principle works on the physical organism, but only up to a point; in certain areas it is mainly the ether body that is at work, in others the astral body, and in yet others the “I.” From the viewpoint of spiritual science, the physical human being proper consists of bones and muscles, that is, of those organs that support and make him a firm structure so that he can walk about on the earth. It is, strictly speaking, only these organs that come into being wholly through the physical principle. However, to them must be added the organs that are comparable to physical instruments — the senses. The eye functions like a camera obscura, the ear like a complex musical instrument. What is significant is that these organs are built up by the first principle, whereas all the organs connected with growth, propagation and digestion are built not only by the physical principle, but also by the ether or life body.
Only the organs built according to physical laws are sustained by the physical principle; the processes of digestion, propagation and growth are sustained by the etheric principle. The astral body is the creator of the whole nervous system, right up to the brain, and also of the spinal cord and nerve fibers. Finally, the "I" is the architect of the blood circulation. In contemplating the human organism from the spiritual-scientific viewpoint, you will realize that the four members are in reality four entities that are completely different from one another. These entities have merged, and work together within human beings right down into the externally visible aspect of a person's organism. The four members of a person's being have different values. We shall understand their significance when we investigate how human development is dependent upon each of them.
Today we shall speak, mainly from the physiological viewpoint, about the work the physical principle accomplishes on a person's organism between birth and the change of teeth. During this period, the physical principle works on the physical body, just as before birth the forces and substances of the maternal organism work on the embryo. From the age of seven till puberty it is mainly the etheric principle that works on the physical body; after puberty it is mainly the forces of the astral body that are at work. Thus, we must think of the human embryo being enveloped by the maternal body up to the moment of birth; at that point the maternal body is, as it were, pushed aside; the senses are freed; the outer world begins to influence the human organism. Then at the age of seven another enveloping sheath is pushed aside. The development of an individual's being can only be understood when we recognize that at the change of teeth something happens spiritually that is similar to what happens physically at birth. The human being is truly born a second time about the seventh year, for the ether body is born and can begin to work independently, just as was the case with the physical body at its birth. The maternal body acts physically on the embryo before birth; up to the change of teeth the spiritual forces of the ether world act on the human ether body. At about the seventh year they are pushed aside, as was the maternal body at physical birth. Up to the seventh year the ether body remains latent within the physical body. At the time of the change of teeth the situation in regard to the ether body is comparable to a piece of wood being ignited. Up till then it was tied to the physical body; now it is freed and can act independently. The ether body's release is announced by the change of teeth. Those with deeper insight into human development recognize that the change of teeth is a significant event. Up to the age of seven the physical principle is at work unfettered, while the etheric and astral principles are still latent, that is, not yet born from their spiritual sheaths.
Up to the age of seven the human being displays a number of inherited factors. These are not built up by his own principles, but are derived from ancestors. The milk teeth belong to this category. Only the second teeth are produced by the child's own physical principle, whose particular task is to build up what constitutes the body's firm support. Before the physical principle produces the second teeth, which are the hardest part of the body's supporting structure and the culmination of its work — it works within the bodily nature, while the ether body, the principle of growth, is still latent.
Once the physical principle has finished its work, the ether body is freed and works on the physical organs up to puberty. At this time another covering, the external astral sheath, is thrust aside as was the maternal body at physical birth. Thus, at puberty the human being is born for the third time when the astral body is freed. At this stage the forces of the ether body culminate their creative activity by producing sexual maturity in the organs connected with propagation. In the seventh year the physical principle culminates its activity by producing the teeth as the last hard structure, and in the ether body the principle of growth is freed. Correspondingly, the moment the astral principle is freed, it produces the greatest concentration of urges and cravings, that is, expression of life insofar as it is bound up with the physical nature. As the physical principle is concentrated in the formation of the second teeth, so is the principle of growth concentrated in bringing about sexual maturity. This sets free the astral body, the sheath of the “I,” which then begins its work on the astral body.
A cultivated person does not follow his urges and passions blindly; he has purified and transformed them into moral feelings and ethical ideals. When we compare a person with a savage, we realize that a Johann von Schiller, [ Friedrich von Schiller (1759–1805), a leading figure in German literature, was a playwright, poet, and essayist. ] a Francis of Assisi [ Francis of Assisi, Saint (c. 1181–1226) was an Italian Roman Catholic mystic and founder of the Franciscan Order of Monks. ] or indeed the average civilized person has purified and transformed, through his “I,” these urges and cravings. Consequently the astral body consists of two parts, one that contains the original tendencies and another created by the “I.” We can only understand the work of the “I” on the basis of reincarnation; we must recognize that we are subject to repeated lives on earth, which means that when we are born we bring with ourselves the fruits, the outcome of earlier lives. These fruits are contained in four separate bodies as the measure of energy and forces available to a person in life. Thanks to what a person has attained already, one person will be born with strong energy and forces with which to work on the astral body, while another will soon exhaust what is available to him.
By investigating clairvoyantly how the “I” spontaneously begins to work on the astral body, controlling urges and cravings, and by estimating the measure of energy the “I” has brought with it, it is possible to say for how long the “I” will be able to carry out its work. After puberty, every human being has available a measure of energy according to which one can estimate when he will have transformed in his astral body all that is possible for him in this life. The life force a person manages to purify and transform in his inner nature sustains itself. As long as it lasts, a person exists at the expense of what is self-sustaining in the astral body. Once it is exhausted, an individual loses the inclination to transform his cravings further; in short, a person lacks the energy to work on the self. This is when the thread of life begins to wear out, as of necessity it must in proportion to the measure allotted each human being. It is the time when the astral body must derive its forces from the principle of life that is nearest, that is, from the ether body. The astral body now lives at the expense of the forces stored in the ether body. This comes to expression as a gradual loss of memory and creative imagination.
That the ether body is the bearer of creative imagination and memory, and also of everything that can be termed fortitude and confidence in life, has often been explained. When these things attain a permanent character, they become a feature of the ether body. But they are drawn out by the astral body now that it exists at the expense of the ether body. When everything the ether body can give is exhausted, the astral body begins to consume the creative forces of the physical body. When these are used up, the life of the physical body dwindles, the body hardens, and the pulse slows down. Thus, at the end, the astral body lives at the expense of the physical body, depriving it of its forces. It can no longer be maintained by the physical principle.
If the astral body is to become free so that it can emerge and participate in the life and work of the “I,” it must, when its allotted task is over in the later part of life, necessarily consume the sheaths it built up. Thus, is individual life created out of the “I.”
What takes place can be compared with what happens when a piece of wood is set alight. Wood could not give birth to fire if it were differently constituted. A flame leaps from the wood, consuming it. The nature of the flame is to free itself and in so doing consume the foundation that gave it existence. The astral body is born three times in this way, each time consuming its own foundation as the flame consumes the wood. What gives individual life the possibility of existence is the fact that it absorbs its own foundation. The root of individual life is death; no individual conscious life could exist if there were no death. Death can only be understood by seeking and recognizing its origin; and life by recognizing its relation to death. The origin of illness can be discovered through a similar approach, which will also throw more light an that of death. Every illness destroys life to some degree. But what exactly is illness?
To understand illness we must look at the way human beings are related to the surrounding world of nature. Let us look at what takes place between a person as a living being and the rest of the natural world. With every breath, sound, light, and morsel of food that a person absorbs, he enters into a reciprocal relationship with nature. If you look at the matter more closely, you will realize, even without spiritual sight, that what exists in the outer world actually builds up the physical organs and causes the senses to function. When certain animals wandered into caves and stayed there, their eyes in time atrophied. The eye, a sense predisposed to light, cannot exist without light; conversely, only where there is light can this sense develop. Hence Goethe could say that the eye is created by the light, for the light. Naturally, the physical body is built up according to what might be designated as the inner architect, but the external substances are the material this architect uses.
Once this is fully recognized, we see the various forces and substances in a different light in relation to human beings. The genuine mystic, with his deeper insight, can tell us much in this respect. Paracelsus, [ Paracelsus (1493–1541) was a Swiss alchemist and physician.] for example, saw the whole external world as an extended human organism, and a person's being as an extract of that world. According to Paracelsus, one can say, when looking at a plant: This plant is composed according to certain laws; in a person's healthy or sick organism something exists to which the plant corresponds. Thus, Paracelsus calls a patient suffering from cholera an “arsenicus,” because he saw arsenic as the remedy for cholera. There exists in nature something that relates to every human organ. If we could extract an essence of the whole natural world and give it human form, the result would be a human being. The letters that spell MAN are, as it were, spread throughout the whole of nature. This indicates how nature acts upon a human being and why he must construct his being from the materials of nature. Basically, everything absorbed by our life processes to build up the organism originated in external nature. When we understand the secret of how the external forces and substances are called to life, we shall also understand illness.
Nowadays the educated person finds difficulty in recognizing that many modern ideas concerned with medicine are extremely vague. If someone with knowledge of natural remedies mentions the word "poison," it immediately stirs up all kinds of suppositions. But what is a poison? What is an abnormal effect on the human organism? Whatever is introduced into the human organism acts according to natural laws; that anyone should think it could act otherwise is incomprehensible. But what is a poison? Water, if taken by the bucketful all at once, is a strong poison. What is today looked upon as poison could have most beneficial effects if rightly administered. It always depends on the quantity and the circumstances under which a substance is administered. Nothing, as such, is a poison.
A tribe in Africa uses a certain species of dog for hunting; in the same region there is a fly whose venom is deadly to the dogs they sting. The savages living by the Sambesi River have found a remedy for these stings. They take the bitches in pup to an area where there is an abundance of tsetse flies and let them be bitten. The tribe knows how to arrange matters so that the bitches do not die before the pups arrive. The pups born in this way are immune to the tsetse fly's sting and can be used for hunting.
This illustrates an important fact for understanding the element of life. When a poison is taken up into the process of life, just where a descending line passes over into an ascending one, the poison becomes an integral part of the organism. What is absorbed in this way not only strengthens but protects the organism.
Spiritual investigation shows that such a process is involved in the building up of the human organism. If you like, we might express it by saying that pure substances, which were originally poisonous, form the human organism; today's foodstuff can be absorbed because, through recurrent processes similar to the one described, we have become immune to their harmful effects. The more of such substances we have incorporated, the stronger we are. Rejecting external substances only makes us weak.
In regions where medicine is still based on occult knowledge, the healer even enlists his own body in the quest for remedies. For example, there are cures where he administers to himself the venom of a certain species of snake, in order to make his saliva into a remedy against their bite. He incorporates the poison into his own organism, thus making himself the bearer of healing forces. He becomes strong himself and makes others strong to withstand that particular venom.
The organism must necessarily incorporate what is outside in nature. All the harmless substances contained in the body have become so through the process indicated. However, as human beings are continuously exposed to substances that could become harmful, the possibility always exists that their effects go beyond the limit, and danger arises. This will depend upon whether the ether body is capable of absorbing the substance or not. If the organism is strong enough to absorb such a substance immediately, its tolerance greatly increases. We cannot avoid illness if we wish to be healthy. The possibility to gain sufficient strength to withstand harmful influences depends upon our capacity to become ill. Thus, health is conditioned by illness. The outcome, the gift bestowed upon us by illness, is greater strength. When the illness is overcome, the fruit of the experience is immunity to the illness, and this is retained even after death.
Whoever ponders these things will gain an understanding of illness and death. If we wish to have strength and health, we must accept into the bargain the preliminary condition of illness. To attain strength we must absorb weakness and transform it into strength. If this is grasped in a living way, illness and death become comprehensible. It is this comprehension spiritual science wishes to bring to humanity. Many will see it as something that speaks only to the intellect, but if the intellect has once fully grasped all that is implied, it will bring about an inner mood of deep accord. Comprehension of these things becomes wisdom of life.
You may well have heard it said that anthroposophical truths, derived as they are from spiritual knowledge, can be dangerous! We have plenty of opponents who maintain that anthroposophy is a poison and is harmful. Well, anthroposophists and esotericists themselves know that anthroposophy can be harmful because, in order to make human beings strong, it must be absorbed and digested. Anthroposophy is not something one can argue about; it acts as a spiritual power of healing, and its truths will be confirmed by life itself.
Spiritual science knows that the spirit creates the physical; therefore, when spiritual forces work upon the ether body, they have a health-giving effect also an the physical body. If our concepts and ideas about the world and life are sound, these healthy thoughts will act as a powerful force of healing. Anthroposophical truths can be harmful only to natures made weak by materialism and naturalism; when they can be absorbed and digested they make a person strong. Only when that happens can anthroposophy fulfill its task.
Goethe answered the question concerning life and death beautifully when he said: “Everything in nature is life; she only invented death to have more life.” One could add that, as well as death, nature also invented illness in order to produce strong health. Furthermore, she had to endow wisdom with apparently harmful effects to make it a powerful force of healing.
The anthroposophical world movement differs from other movements that may provide logical proofs to be argued and debated. Anthroposophy does not wish to be something that can be proved simply through logical arguments. It wishes to provide both spiritual and bodily health. Living proof of its truth will be increasingly discovered the more it is seen to enhance life, transforming discontentment into contentment. Spiritual science is like the so-called poison which, when transformed, fructifies life and becomes a source of healing.
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