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The Rudolf Steiner Archive

a project of Steiner Online Library, a public charity

GA 9

I. The Nature of Man

The following words of Goethe point in a beautiful manner to the starting point of one of the ways by which the nature of man can be known. “As soon as a person becomes aware of the objects around him, he considers them in relation to himself, and rightly so, for his whole fate depends on whether they please or displease, attract or repel, help or harm him. This quite natural way of looking at or judging things appears to be as easy as it is necessary. Nevertheless, a person is exposed through it to a thousand errors which often make him ashamed and embitter his life. A far more difficult task is undertaken by those whose keen desire for knowledge urges them to observe the objects of nature in themselves and in their relations to each other; for they soon feel the lack of the test which helped them when they, as men, regarded the objects in reference to themselves personally. They lack the test of pleasure and displeasure, attraction and repulsion, usefulness and harmfulness. This they must renounce entirely: they ought as dispassionate and, so to speak, divine beings, to seek and examine what is, and not what gratifies. Thus the true botanist should not be moved either by the beauty or by the usefulness of the plants. He has to study their formation and their relation to the rest of the vegetable kingdom; and just as they are one and all enticed forth and shone upon by the sun, so should he with an equable, quiet glance look at and survey them all and obtain the test for this knowledge, the data for his deductions not out of himself, but from within the circle of the things which he observes.”

The thought thus expressed by Goethe directs man's attention to three kinds of things. First, the objects concerning which information continually flows to him through the portals of his senses, the objects which he touches, smells, tastes, hears and sees. Second, the impressions which these make on him, characterising themselves through the fact that he finds the one sympathetic, the other abhorrent; the one useful, the other harmful. Third, the knowledge which he, as a so-to-speak “divine being,” acquires concerning the objects—that is, the secrets of their activities and their being which unveil themselves to him.

These three regions are distinctly separate in human life. And man thereby becomes aware that he is interwoven with the world in a threefold way. The first way is something that he finds present, that he accepts as a given fact. Through the second way he makes the world into his own affair, into something that has a meaning for himself. The third way he regards as a goal towards which he has unceasingly to strive.

Why does the world appear to man in this threefold way? A simple consideration will explain it. I cross a meadow covered with flowers. The flowers make their colours known to me through my eyes. That is the fact which I accept as given. I rejoice in the splendour of the colours. Through this I turn the fact into an affair of my own. Through my feelings I connect the flowers with my own existence. A year later I go again over the same meadow. Other flowers are there. New joy arises in me through them. My joy of the former year will appear as a memory. It is in me; the object which aroused it in me is gone. But the flowers which I now see are of the same kind as those I saw the year before; they have grown in accordance with the same laws as did the others. If I have informed myself regarding this species and these laws, then I find them in the flowers of this year again just as I found them in those of last year. And I shall perhaps muse as follows: “The flowers of last year are gone; my joy in them remains only in my remembrance. It is bound up with my existence alone. That, however, which I recognised in the flowers of last year and recognise again this year, will remain as long as such flowers grow. That is something that has revealed itself to me, but is not dependent on my existence in the same way as my joy is. My feelings of joy remain in me; the laws, the being of the flowers remain outside me in the world.”

Thus man continually links himself in this threefold way with the things of the world. One should not for the time being read anything into this fact, but merely take it as it stands. There follows from it that man has three sides to his nature. This and nothing else will for the present be indicated here by the three words body, soul, and spirit. Whoever connects any preconceived opinions, or even hypotheses with these three words will necessarily misunderstand the following explanations. By body is here meant that through which the things in man's environment reveal themselves to him; as in the above example, the flowers of the meadow. By the word soul is signified that by which he links the things to his own being, through which he experiences pleasure and displeasure, desire and aversion, joy and sorrow in connection with them. By spirit is meant that which becomes manifest in him when, as Goethe expressed it, he looks at things as a “so to speak, divine being.” In this sense the human being consists of body, soul and spirit.

Through his body man is able to place himself for the time being in connection with things; through his soul he retains in himself the impressions which they make on him; through his spirit there reveals itself to him what the things retain for themselves. Only when one observes man in these three aspects can one hope to be enlightened about his nature. For these three aspects show him to be related in a threefold way to the rest of the world.

Through his body he is related to the objects which present themselves to his senses from without. The materials from the outer world compose this body of his; and the forces of the outer world also work in it. And just as he observes the things of the outer world with his senses, so he can also observe his own bodily existence. But it is impossible to observe the soul-existence in the same way. Everything in me which is bodily process can be perceived with my bodily senses. My likes and dislikes, my joy and pain, neither I nor anyone else can perceive with bodily senses. The region of the soul is one which is inaccessible to bodily perception. The bodily existence of a man is manifest to all eyes; the soul-existence he carries within himself as his own world. Through the spirit, however, the outer world is revealed to him in a higher way. The mysteries of the outer world, indeed, unveil themselves in his inner being; but he steps in spirit out of himself and lets the things speak about themselves, about that which has significance not for him but for them. Man looks up at the starry heavens; the delight his soul experiences belongs to him; the eternal laws of the stars which he comprehends in thought, in spirit, belong not to him but to the stars themselves.

Thus man is citizen of three worlds. Through his body he belongs to the world which he also perceives through his body; through his soul he constructs for himself his own world; through his spirit a world reveals itself to him which is exalted above both the others.

It seems obvious that because of the essential differences of these three worlds, a clear understanding of them and of man's share in them can only be obtained by means of three different modes of observation.