We cannot come to understand the human organism, in health or in illness, if we conceive that the working effects of any substance, taken in with the food from external nature, simply continue into the inner parts of the organism. Within the human organism it is not a question of continuing, but, on the contrary, of overcoming the reactions observable in the substance while outside the organism.
The illusion that the substances of the outer world simply continue to work of their own nature in the organism, is due to the fact that to the ordinary chemical conception of today it appears to be so. This, according to its researchers, is dedicated to the belief that hydrogen, for example, is present in the body in the same form as in external nature, since it occurs first in the substances consumed as food and drink, and then in the products of excretion: air, sweat, urine, faeces, or in secretions such as bile.
One feels no necessity to ask what happens within the living body to that which appears as hydrogen before its entry into and after its exit from the organism.
One does not ask: What does that which appears as hydrogen experience inside the organism?
When, however, one raises this question, one is at once impelled to turn one's attention to the contrast between the waking and sleeping organism. When the organism is asleep, its physical nature provides no basis for the unfolding of conscious or self-conscious experience, but it still provides a basis for the unfolding of life. In this respect the sleeping organism is distinguished from the dead. For the substantial basis of the latter is no longer one of life. And so long as one only sees this contrast in the differing composition of substances in the dead and living organism, one will not progress in one's understanding.
Half a century ago the eminent physiologist Du Bois Reymond pointed out that consciousness can never be explained by the reactions of material substance. Never, he declared, shall we understand why it should not be a matter of indifference to so many atoms of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen and nitrogen, what their relative position is, or was, or will become. or why, by these their changes of position, they should bring forth in man the sensations: I see red, I smell the scent of roses. Such being the case, Du Bois Reymond contended, natural-scientific thought can never explain the waking human being, filled as he is with sensations; it can only explain the sleeping man.
Yet in this view he fell subject to an illusion. He believed that the phenomena of life, though not of consciousness, would be intelligible as an outcome of the reactions of material substance. But in reality, we must say of the phenomena of life, as he said of those of consciousness: Why should it occur to so many atoms of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen and nitrogen to bring forth, by the manner of their present, past, or future relative positions, the phenomenon of life?
Observation shows, after all, that the phenomena of life have an altogether different orientation from those that run their course within the lifeless realm. Of the latter we shall be able to say: They reveal that they are subject to forces radiating outward from the essence of material substance. These forces radiate from the relative centre of the earth to the periphery. But the manifestations of life show the material substance appears subject to forces working from without inward toward the relative centre. Passing on into the sphere of life, the substance must withdraw itself from the forces radiating outward and subject itself to those that radiate inward.
Now it is to the earth that every earthly substance, or earthly process, owes its forces of the kind that radiate outward; it has these forces in common with the earth. It is, indeed, only as a constituent of the earth-body that any substance has the nature which chemistry discovers in it. When it comes to life, then it must stop being simply a piece of earth, it leaves its community with the earth. It is gathered up into the forces that radiate inward to the earth from all sides, from beyond the earthly realm. Whenever we see a substance or process unfold in forms of life, we must conceive it to be withdrawing from the forces that work upon it as from the centre of the earth, and entering the domain of others, which have, not a centre, but a periphery.
From all sides they work, these forces, as if striving towards the central point of the earth. They would tear asunder the material nature of the earthly realm, dissolve it into complete formlessness, were it not for the heavenly bodies beyond the earth which mingle their influences in the field of these forces and modify the dissolving process. In the plant we can observe what happens. In plants, the substances of the earth are lifted out of the domain of earthly influences. They strive towards the formless. But this transition to the formless is modified by the influences of the sun and similar effects from the cosmos. When these are no longer working, or when they are working differently, as in the night, then, in the substances in question, the forces which they have from their community with earth begin to stir once more. From the cooperation of earthly forces and cosmic, the plant nature arises. If we comprise in the term physical the domain of all those forces and reactions which the substances unfold under the earth's influence we shall have to designate the entirely different forces which do not radiate outward from the earth, but in toward it, by a name in which this different character must find expression. Here we come from a new aspect to that element in the organization of man which was indicated from another in the former chapter. In harmony with an older usage, which has fallen into confusion under the modern purely physical way of thinking, we have agreed to denote this part of the human organism as the etheric. Thus, we shall have to say: in the plant-like nature, inasmuch as it appears alive, the etheric is holding sway.
In man too, inasmuch as he is a living being, the same etheric principle holds sway. Nevertheless, even with respect to the mere phenomena of life, an important difference is apparent in his nature as against the plant's. For the plant lets the physical hold sway within it when the etheric from the cosmic spaces is no longer unfolding its influence, as is the case when at night-time the sun-ether ceases to work. The human being, on the other hand, only lets the physical hold sway within his body when death ensues. In sleep, though the phenomena of consciousness and self-consciousness vanish away; the phenomena of life remain, even when the sun-ether is no longer working in the cosmic spaces. Perpetually, throughout its life the plant is receiving into itself the ether-forces as they ray in towards the earth. Man, however, carries them within him in an individualized way, from the embryonic period of his existence. During his life, he takes out of himself what the plant receives continually from the universe because he received it for his further development already in the mother's womb. A force whose proper nature is originally cosmic, destined to pour its influences in towards the earth, works out of the lung or liver. It has accomplished a metamorphosis of its direction.
Thus we shall have to say, man bears the etheric within him in an individualized form. As he carries the physical in the individualized form of his physical body and its organs, so too with the etheric. He has his own special etheric body, as he has his physical. In sleep, the etheric body of man remains united with the physical and gives it life; it only separates from it in death.