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Supersensible Knowledge
GA 55

III. The Origin of Suffering

8 November 1906, Berlin

Today's lecture has a close connection with the two succeeding discourses entitled, “The Origin of Evil”; and “Illness and Death.” Yet each lecture is complete and comprehensible by itself.

Someone who contemplates his own life, as well as life in general, encounters at the outset, like an enigmatic figure standing guard before life's portal, the problem of suffering.

Suffering, so closely bound up with evil, illness and death, often cuts deeply into people's lives, and is seen as one of its greatest riddles. When attempts are made to find meaning in life, to assess its value, it is above all pain and suffering that come under scrutiny. In all world views since ancient times, it features as one of the foremost questions.

Suffering appears like an unwelcome intruder; it destroys, in the midst of happiness, enjoyment and hope. People who feel pain and suffering the most are those that measure life's value according to its pleasures, that, as it were, exist solely for the sake of enjoyment. It explains why a people as happy and as full of enjoyment of life as the ancient Greeks had a saying which hung like a dark cloud in the midst of the beautiful stars on the Hellenic firmament. The wise Silenus,1Silenus was a drunken attendant of Bacchus and one of the satyrs. He was a personage in Greek mythology. a member of Dionysus2Dionysus was the god of wine and fertility. retinue, answers the question, What is best for man? by saying: “The best for man is not to be born, and if born the next best for him is to die soon after.”

As you may know, Friedrich Nietzsche3Friedrich Nietzche(1844–1900) was a German philosopher, classical scholar and critic of Christianity. occupied himself with this saying in his effort to understand the birth of tragedy out of the Spirit of ancient Greece. He wanted to demonstrate, on the basis of Greek art and philosophy, the significant role played by suffering itself, and the sorrow it caused. However, not muck later another saying came to the fore in Greece that shows a dawning understanding for the fact that the significance of pain goes far beyond that of misfortune. We find in Aeschylus,4 Aeschylus (c.525–456 B.C. one of the early Greek tragic poets, the saying, “From suffering knowledge is born.” Two things are here brought together, one of which the greater part of humanity would no doubt prefer to see eliminated, while seeing in the other one of life's greatest benefits.

From time immemorial, the belief has existed that life on this planet is unavoidably entwined with suffering, at least as far as human beings and the higher creatures are concerned—a view we find expressed at the start of the biblical story of creation, where knowledge of good and evil is intimately bound up with suffering. However, we also find in the Old Testament the view expressed that there can dawn, within the bleakest outlook caused by suffering, one filled with hope and light. A closer look at the Old Testament makes it clear that right from ancient times, sin and suffering have always been seen as connected, suffering as being a consequence of sin. The modern materialistic outlook finds it difficult to grasp that suffering may originate from sin. But when one has learned through spiritual research to look back into earlier ages, one recognizes that this view is not without foundation; the next lecture will show that it is possible to connect evil and suffering.

But in one case ancient Judaism found it impossible to explain the origin of suffering. In the midst of views connecting suffering with sin, we find the remarkable figure of Job. The story of Job shows, or is meant to show, that undeserved suffering can exist, that unspeakable pain can come about in a life without sin. In the uniquely tragic personality of Job, we see a dawning consciousness of a different connection, namely, a connection between suffering and ennoblement. Here suffering appears as a testing, as an incentive to greater striving. In the sense of Job's tragedy, suffering need not originate from evil; it may be a first cause from which will result a more perfect phase in human life. This viewpoint is rather remote from the modern way of thinking; most of today's educated people would find it difficult to accept. But if you look back over your life you will realize how often suffering and higher development go together. Furthermore, humanity has always been aware of this connection; and that leads us to today's subject. We shall consider in the sense of spiritual science the connection between suffering and spirituality

In dramas the central figure is often the tragic hero. The hero is faced again and again with suffering and conflict; at last at the climax the suffering ends with the death of the physical body. At this point the onlooker not only experiences compassion for the tragic hero and sorrow that such suffering exists; but he also has Bone through a catharsis, and feels that from death certainty arises, certainty that pain and suffering, and even death itself, are conquered.

No art form portrays more sublimely than the tragedy the greatest human victory, the victory of a person's innermost and noblest forces. On the stage we can often witness the conquest of pain and suffering. It is brought forcefully to our consciousness when we contemplate the event recognized by a large part of humanity as the greatest in history. The event that divides our reckoning of time into two parts—the salvation through Christ Jesus. It may strike us that, precisely through contemplating a suffering of world magnitude, the profoundest hope takes root in human hearts. Christianity reassures us concerning eternity, concerning victory over death. From looking up to a universal suffering preceded by no personal guilt or sin, we derive hope and strength. This indicates a consolatory feeling in the human soul that always asserts itself in the face of suffering.

If we look at human life more carefully, we find phenomena that indicate the significance of suffering. Let us look at one such phenomenon that is symptomatic, although at first sight it may not appear to be connected with suffering.

Think once more of a tragedy. The poet can only create such a work of art if he has the capacity to go out of himself, to widen his soul and encompass the suffering of others. The poet must be able to experience the suffering of others as if it were his own. But now compare this attitude with a very different one–not however with what inspires comedy—that would not be the right comparison. Rather compare it with the attitude that inspires caricature; that too in a sense belongs to the realm of art. The caricaturist distorts what is expressed outwardly of what lives in another soul, perhaps with ridicule and derision. Let us now imagine two persons, one of whom sees an event or a human being as tragic, the other who sees the situation in caricature. It is no mere simile when we say that the artist as tragic poet goes out of himself, allowing his soul to become ever more encompassing. But what is it that individuals attain through this ever widening of their inner being? They attain understanding of the other. Nothing provides greater understanding than experiencing another person's suffering as one's own. But what about the caricaturist? He cannot enter into the other person's feeling; on the contrary, he must reject, must set himself above it. The refusal to consider the other person's inner life is basic to caricature. No one can fail to see that compassion leads to understanding of the other, whereas caricature reveals the nature of the caricaturist. We learn through his work far more about his feeling of superiority, wit, and power of observation and imagination, than we learn about the nature of his subject.

If these examples make it evident that suffering is connected with deeper aspects of human nature, it is to be hoped that an understanding of our essential nature will also make clear how pain and suffering originate.

Spiritual science recognizes that the whole physical world about us originated from the spirit, whereas the materialistic view only sees spirit where it appears as a kind of crown on physical material creation, as a kind of flower growing from physical roots. The materialistic view sees, as it were, the inorganic organizing itself within the living creatures. Consciousness, pleasure and pain emerge from sentient life, the spirit from the corporeal. When the spiritual researcher looks at the way spirit first appears in the natural world, he too sees it emerging from the physical.

We saw in the preceding two lectures that in the light of spiritual science we must think of the human being as consisting not only of a physical or bodily nature, but also of soul and spirit. What materialism regards as the whole of existence, that is, what can be perceived physically, spiritual science maintains is in plan only his first member: the physical body. We know it is built up from the same substances as those that exist in inorganic nature, but we also know that it is called into life by the so-called ether or life body. This ether body is not something merely thought out; it is a reality and can be perceived when the higher senses that slumber in us are developed. The ether body is the second member of our being also possessed by the vegetable kingdom. Our third member, the astral body, is the bearer of pleasure and pain, cravings and passions; animals also possess an astral body. In the human being we see emerging within his physical, ether and astral bodies consciousness of self, that is, the ability to call himself “I.” This is the crown of his nature, which no other earthly being possesses. Spiritual science has often indicated the interrelation of these four members. The Pythagorean fourfoldness is nothing else than that of physical body, ether body, astral body and “I.” Those who have gone more deeply into spiritual science know that the “I” of a human being will develop out of itself what is termed: Spirit Self or Manas; Life Spirit or Buddhi; and Spirit Man or Atma, an individual's essential spirit being. This is all mentioned again today to ensure proper orientation.

Thus, the spiritual investigator sees the human being as a fourfold being. At a certain point spiritual research differs decisively from external research because spiritual perception penetrates deeply into the foundation of existence. However, the spiritual investigator also sees that, as a human being comes before us in the physical world, physical matter and laws constitute the foundation of a person's bodily nature; life constitutes the foundation of sensation; and consciousness the foundation of self-consciousness. But to spiritual research the sequence is seen the other way round. What to physical appearance seems to be the last to emerge from the physical body, that is, consciousness, is seen by the spiritual investigator as the primordial creative element. The conscious spirit is seen as the foundation of all existence. Consequently one cannot ask, Where does spirit come from? That can never be the question, rather, Where does matter come from? Spiritual research shows that matter originates from spirit; it is nothing but condensed spirit.

One might compare the process with water condensing into ice. Think of a vessel with water, part of which has cooled to below freezing so that ice has formed. This ice is nothing but water in solid form. Spirit relates to matter as water to ice. As ice can become water once more, so can spirit emerge again from matter, or conversely, matter can dissolve into spirit.

Thus, we see spirit in eternal circulation. Out of spirit that fills the whole universe, we see material entities arise and solidify; on the other hand material entities continually dissolve again. Spirit has flowed into everything that surrounds us as matter. Everything material is solidified spirit. Just as we only have to add the necessary heat for ice to turn back into water, so it is only necessary to add enough spirit to the physical beings to make the spirit resurrect in them. One speaks of a rebirth of the spirit which, having flowed into matter, has become solidified. Thus, we see that the astral body, the bearer of pleasure and pain, cravings and passions, is something that could not possibly originate from the physical. It is of the same element that permeates the whole world, but in us it lives as conscious spirit. It will be released from matter through the processes that govern human life. The spirit that in the physical world appears as the last is at the same time the first. The spirit brings the physical body and the ether body into existence, and when these have reached a certain point in their evolution, the spirit reappears as if reborn within them.

Physical substance, matter, we always perceive in a certain shape, in a certain form. We speak of material form, of life that arises within that form, and of consciousness arising within the living form. Thus, we speak of the three stages: physical body, ether body and astral body, and also of the three corresponding stages: form, life and consciousness. Not until the stage of consciousness is reached can self-consciousness arise. This will concern us in the next lecture.

The meaning and origin of life have always been subjects of much discussion, not least in our time. Modern natural science has not discovered many points of reference in this field. However, natural science has recently arrived at a conclusion that spiritual science has always maintained, namely, that organic and inorganic substances do not differ as far as the actual substances are concerned. The only difference lies in the fact that organic substances are more complex in their composition. Life can arise only where there are substances of varied and complex structure. As you may know, the basic substance where there is life is a white-of-egg-like substance which could well be called “living albumen.” It has one important characteristic that makes it differ from lifeless albumen; it begins to deteriorate the moment life has left it. That is why eggs, for example, do not stay fresh for long. The essential character of living substance is that it cannot remain a unity once life has departed.

Although we cannot today go into detail about the nature of life, we can consider this one essential characteristic of living substance, the fact that it disintegrates the moment life has gone from it. A complex structure composed of various substances will disintegrate if not permeated with life. That is its most characteristic feature. So what does life do? It preserves, it continuously opposes disintegration. Life has the ability to rejuvenate because it continuously opposes what would otherwise take place in substances it permeates. When a substance contains life it means that disintegration is being fought. Life possesses the exact opposite qualities to those of death; instead of causing substances to fall apart, it continually holds them together. Thus, life becomes the foundation of physical existence and consciousness by constantly preventing disintegration.

This is not just a verbal definition; what it points to happens all the time. You only have to observe the simplest form of life and you will find that substances are perpetually being absorbed and incorporated while bodily particles deteriorate; it is the latter process that life continuously works against. Thus, we are dealing with an actual phenomena.

Life means that new substances are formed and old ones thrown off. But life is not yet either sensation or consciousness. Certain scientists fail to understand sensation and ascribe it to plants that have life but not sensation. This childish notion comes about because there are plants that close their leaves and blossoms in response to external stimuli. One could just as well ascribe sensation to blue litmus paper that turns red in response to external stimuli, or to chemical substance as they too react to certain influences. But that is not enough.

If sensation is to occur, there must be an inner mirroring of the stimulus; only then can we speak of the lower form of consciousness, sensation and feeling. But what exactly is it? If we are to gain insight into this next higher stage of evolution, we must approach it gradually as we did the nature of life. Consciousness arises from life; it can only come into being where life already exists. It reveals itself as higher than life; the latter seemingly arises out of lifeless matter of such complexity that unless seized by life it disintegrates. Consciousness arises at the border between life and death, that is to say, where life constantly threatens to disappear from substance, and where substance is continually being destroyed. Substance disintegrates unless held together by forces of life. Life dissolves unless a new principle, that is, consciousness, is added. Consciousness can only be understood when it is recognized that it constantly renews life that would otherwise dissolve, just as life forces renew certain processes without which matter would decay.

Not every form of life can renew itself from within. It must first have reached a certain higher level. Only when the force of life is strong enough constantly to endure death within itself can it awake to consciousness. To be aware of life that at every moment contains death, you need only look at life within the human being, and bear in mind what was explained in the last lecture, “Blood is a very special Fluid,” and that within human beings, life is constantly renewed through the blood. As a psychologist with insight remarked: “In the blood man carries within him a double from whom he, constantly draws strength.” But blood contains yet another force: it continuously produces death. When it has taken life-giving substances to the organs, it carries away destructive elements back to the heart and lungs. What returns to the lungs is poisonous, destructive to life.

A being whose nature works against disintegration is a being possessing life. If it is able to let death arise, and continuously transform that death into life, then it is a conscious being. Consciousness is the strongest of all forces. Death must of necessity arise in the midst of life; consciousness, or conscious spirit, is the force that eternally wrenches life from death. Life is both an inward and an external process, whereas consciousness is purely an inward one. A substance that dies outwardly cannot become conscious. Consciousness can only arise in substance that can generate death within itself and overcome it. As a perceptive person once remarked: “From death springs not only life but consciousness.”

Once this connection is recognized, the existence of pain becomes comprehensible. It is pain that originally gave rise to consciousness. When the life within a being is exposed to light, air, heat or cold, then these external elements act in the first place an the living being. This influence does not give rise to consciousness in plants because here the effects are simply absorbed. Consciousness only arises when there is conflict between the external elements and the inner life-force, causing a breaking down of tissue. Consciousness can only arise from the inner destruction of life. Unless a partial death takes place in the living being, the process that gives rise to consciousness cannot be initiated; beams of light cannot penetrate to the surface of life, causing partial destruction of the inner substances and forces. It is this that produces the mysterious process that is occurring everywhere in the external world.

You must visualize that the cosmic forces of intelligence had reached a level of evolution so high that the external light and air became alien. There had been harmony for a time, but through the higher perfection of cosmic forces, conflict arose. If you could follow with spiritual sight what happens at the point where a simple living creature is penetrated by a beam of light, you would see alteration in the skin; a tiny eye begins to appear. A delicate form of destruction occurs that is experienced as pain. From this pain consciousness is born. Wherever the element of life meets the external world, a process of destruction occurs; if great enough, the outcome is death. The pain gives rise to consciousness. The process that originally created our eyes could have resulted in complete destruction had it gained the upper hand. But it seized upon only a small part of the human being, and through partial destruction, partial death created the possibility for that inner reflection of the outer world to arise that we call “consciousness.” Thus, consciousness within matter is born out of suffering and pain.

When this connection between pain and the conscious spirit around us is recognized, many things become comprehensible, for example, why thoughtful people ascribe such a significant role to pain. An important philosopher has pointed out that an expression of suffering and pain is to be seen everywhere on the countenance of the world. Indeed, the physiognomy of the higher animals conveys deeply repressed pain.

Thus, we see that consciousness comes into existence through pain, that a being in whom consciousness arises from destruction creates from the annihilation of life something that is higher, and in fact continuously creates itself out of death. If the living could not suffer, consciousness could not arise; if there were no death, the spirit could not exist in the visible world. Herein lies the strength of the spirit: It creates from destruction something higher than life, namely, consciousness. We see the organs serving consciousness develop at different levels of pain. This can be observed already in the lower animal kingdom where the level of consciousness, in defense against the outer world, consists of instinctive reflex movements, comparable to the human eye instinctively closing itself against what might harm it. It is when such instinctive reaction is not enough to protect the element of life in the creature, when in other words the provocation is too strong, that the inner forces of opposition are roused which in turn give birth to senses, to sensation, and to organs like the eye and ear. You may have an instinctive feeling that what I have just explained is the truth. You certainly know it in your higher consciousness, but let me give you an example to make it clearer still. When do you become aware of your inner organs? You go through life paying no attention to your stomach, liver or lungs. You feel none of your organs as long as they are sound. You only know that you possess this or that organ when it hurts, when you feel something is out of order, in other words, when destruction has set in. This illustrates that consciousness always arises from pain.

If the element of life meets with pain, the result is sensation and consciousness. This bringing forth of a higher element is reflected in the consciousness as pleasure. No pleasure exists without prior pain. At the lower level, where life is just emerging within physical substance, no pleasure exists as yet. But when pain has given rise to consciousness, and as consciousness continues to work creatively, what it then produces is on a higher level, and gives rise to feelings of pleasure. Creativeness is the basis of pleasure. Pleasure only exists where there is a possibility for inner or outer creativity. Happiness is always in some way based on creation, just as unhappiness is in some way due to the need to create. Take an example of suffering that is typical on a lower level, that of hunger which can result in destruction of life. Hunger is alleviated by food; the food is a source of enjoyment because it becomes transformed into something that enhances life. Thus, something higher, namely, pleasure is created on the basis of pain. Suffering precedes pleasure. Thus, it must be said that while Arthur Schopenhauer [ Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860) was a German philosopher. ] and Eduard von Hartmann [ Eduard von Hartmann (1842–1906) was a German philosopher and poet. ] are right when they state in their philosophic work that suffering is a universal factor of life, they do not go deeply enough into the origin of suffering. They do not go back to the point where suffering evolves and becomes something higher. The origin of suffering is found where consciousness arises out of the element of life, where life gives birth to spirit.

We have shown that from suffering something nobler and more perfect is born. It is therefore comprehensible that an inkling should dawn in human souls for the fact that a connection exists between pain and suffering on the one hand, and knowledge and consciousness on the other.

Those who are acquainted with my lectures will recall references to initiation by means of which a higher consciousness is attained that enables us to perceive the spiritual world. When a person's slumbering soul forces and faculties are awakened, the result is comparable to sight being restored to someone born blind. Just as such a person will experience the whole world differently, so the whole world is transformed for the human being who has attained spiritual sight. Everything is seen in a new light and on a higher level. But for this to come about, the process that has been explained must be repeated at a higher stage. The soul forces that generally speaking from a unity in humans must separate; a kind of destruction must take place in a person's lower nature. Only when this occurs is a higher consciousness and spiritual perception attained.

There are three soul forces in human beings: thinking, feeling and willing. These three forces are bound up with the physical organization. Certain thoughts and feelings will call up certain acts of will. The human organism must function correctly if the three soul forces are to act in harmony. If the connection between them has broken down due to illness, then there is no longer consistency between thinking, feeling and willing. If an organ connected with the will is impaired, the human being will be unable to translate his thoughts into impulses of will; he is weak as far as action is concerned. Although a person is well able to think, he cannot decide on action. Another disturbance may be that someone is unable to link thoughts and feelings correctly; this human cannot bring his feelings into harmony with the thoughts behind them. Basically that is the cause of insanity.

In the normally constituted human being of today, thinking, feeling and willing are in harmony. This is right at certain stages of evolution. However, it must be born in mind that as far as a person is concerned, this harmony is established unconsciously. If a person is to be initiated, if he or she is to become capable of higher perception, then thinking, feeling and willing must be severed from one another. The organs connected with feeling and will must undergo division. Consequently, even if it cannot be proved anatomically, the organism of an initiate is different from that of a non-initiate. Because the contact between thinking, feeling and willing is severed, the initiate can see someone suffering without his feelings being roused; he can stand aside and coldly observe. The reason is that nothing must occur in the initiate unconsciously. An individual is compassionate out of his own free will, not because of some external compulsion. He becomes separated into human beings of feeling, a person of will and a thinking person; above these three is the ruler, the newfound individual, bringing them into harmony from a higher consciousness. Here too a death process, a destructive process must intervene; should this occur without a higher consciousness being attained, insanity would set in. Insanity is in fact a condition in which the three soul members have separated without being ruled by a higher consciousness.

Here too we see a twofold event taking place: a destructive process at work in what is lower, simultaneous with the creation of a higher element. The ordinary person's consciousness lights up between blue, poisonous, destructive blood, and red, life-giving blood; similarly the initiate's higher consciousness is born from the interaction of life and death, and bliss arises from the higher happiness of creating out of death.

Human beings have an instinctive feeling for that mysterious connection between the highest they can attain, and suffering, and pain. This feeling inspires the tragic poet to let the suffering to which his hero succumbs give rise to the conviction that ultimately life triumphs over death; the eternal over the temporal. Thus, Christianity rightly sees in the pain and suffering, in the anguish and misery to which Christ Jesus' earthly nature succumbs, the victory of eternal life over the temporal and transitory. It is also the reason why our life becomes richer, more satisfying, when we can widen it so that we absorb and make our own what lies beyond our own self.

When we, as beings possessing life, overcame the pain caused by the beam of external light, something higher was born, that is, consciousness. Likewise, something higher is born from receptiveness to suffering when we, in our widened consciousness, transform out of compassion the suffering of another into our own. Therefore, at the highest level suffering gives rise to love. For what else is love than widening one's consciousness to encompass other beings? It is love when we are willing to deprive ourselves, to sacrifice ourselves to whatever extent for the sake of another. Like the skin that received the beam of light, and out of the pain became able to create a higher entity: the eye; so will we, through widening our life to encompass the lives of others, become able to attain a higher life. There will then, out of what we have given away to others, be born within us love and compassion for all creatures.

The death on the cross of Christ Jesus bears witness to this truth, for, as Christianity teaches, there soon followed the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. In the light of the process we have explained, which is indicated in the parable of the grain of wheat, we can now understand the coming forth of the Holy Spirit as a consequence of the death on the Cross. Just as the new crop of wheat must rise from the decay, the destruction of the seeds; so from the destruction, the pain endured upon the Cross, that Spirit is born which poured out over the Apostles at the feast of Pentecost. This is dearly stated in the Gospel of John 7:39, where it is said that the Spirit was not yet there, for Christ was not yet glorified. To read the Gospel of John closely is to discover things of immense significance.

Many people say that they would not want to be spared the pain they have endured, for from it they have gained knowledge. This is a truth that those who have died would confirm. If pain did not stand constantly at our side, like a guardian of life, the destruction that goes on within us would lead to actual death. It is pain that warns us we must take precaution to prevent life being destroyed; thus, from pain comes new life. As mentioned, a modern natural scientist describes the mimicry of thinking as the expression of suppressed pain on a thinker's face.

If we learn through pain, if knowledge attained through pain has an ennobling effect, then it explains why in the biblical story of creation pain and suffering are connected with the knowledge of good and evil. This we shall go into in the next lecture. It also explains why knowledgeable people have always emphasized that pain has an ennobling, purifying effect on a person. Through the great law of destiny, karma, spiritual science indicates that a person's pain and suffering in one life point to wrong done in former lives. This is a connection that can only be understood through the deeper aspects of human nature. Baser impulses that in a former life led to external action are transformed into nobler ones. Sin is like a poison that when transformed becomes a source of healing. Thus, sin can eventually contribute to a person's strength and ennoblement. In the story of Job, pain and suffering are shown to lead to greater knowledge and ennoblement.

This is meant only as a sketch, as an indication of the significance of suffering in earthly existence. When we recognize the solidifying, crystallizing effect of pain in physical entities right up to that of human beings, then we begin to realize the reason for its existence—especially when we further recognize that through dissolving what has hardened, the spirit can be reborn through us, that through the transformation of pain and suffering the spirit bestows upon us beauty, strength and wisdom. Fabre d'Olivet used the formation of a pearl when he wished to illustrate that the highest, noblest and purest in human nature is born from pain. The precious and beautiful pearl is created from the illness and pain of the pearl-oyster. The highest and noblest qualities of human nature are attained through suffering and pain.

Thus, we may say, as did the ancient Greek poet Aeschylus, that from suffering knowledge is born, and also that pain, like much else, can be understood only by its fruits.