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Origin of Suffering, Origin of Evil, Illness and Death
GA 55

III. What Do We Understand by Illness and Death

13 December 1906, Berlin

Today our subject is one that undoubtedly concerns all human beings, for the words “illness” and “death” express something which enters in every life, often as an uninvited guest, often too in a vexing, frustrating, frightening guise, and death presents itself as the greatest riddle of existence; so that when anyone has solved the question of its nature he has also solved that other question — the nature of life. Frequently we hear it said that death is an unsolved riddle — a riddle which no-one will ever solve. People who speak thus have no idea how arrogant these words are; they have no idea that there does exist a solution to the riddle which, however, they do not happen to understand. Today, when we are to deal with such an all-embracing and important subject, I beg you particularly to bear in mind how impossible it is for us to do more than answer the above question: “What do we understand by illness and death?” Hence we cannot go into detail where such things as illness and health are concerned, but must confine ourselves to the essential question: How do we arrive at an understanding of these two important problems of our existence?

The most familiar answer to this question concerning the nature of death, one that has held good for centuries but today has little importance attached to it by the majority of educated people, is contained in St. Paul's words: “For the wages of sin is death”. As we have said in previous lectures, for many centuries these words were in a way a solution of the riddle of death. Today those who think in modern terms will not be able to make anything of such an answer; they would be mystified by the idea that sin — something entirely moral and having to do only with human conduct — could be the cause of a physical fact or should be supposed to have anything to do with the nature of illness and death.

Perhaps it will be helpful if we refer to the present utter lack of understanding of the text “the wages of sin is death”. For Paul and those who lived in his day did not attribute at all the same meaning to the word “sin” that is done by the philistine of today. Paul did not think of sin as being a fault in the ordinary sense nor one of a deeper kind; he understood sin to be anything proceeding from selfishness and egoism. Every action is sin that has selfishness and egoism as its driving force — in contrast to what springs from positive, objective impulses — and the fact that the human being has become independent and conscious of self pre-supposes egoism and selfishness. This must be recognised when we make a deep study of the way in which a spirit such as that of Paul thinks.

Whoever is not content with a merely superficial understanding of both Old and New Testament records but penetrates really to their spirit, knows that a quite definite method of thinking — one might call it that of innate philosophy — forms the undercurrent of these records. The undercurrent is something of this kind: All living creatures in the world are directed towards a determined goal. We come across lower beings who have a perfectly neutral attitude towards pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow. We then find how life evolves, something being bound up with it. Let those who shudder at the word teleology realise that here we have no thought-out theory but a simple fact — the whole kingdom of living beings right up to man is moving towards a definite goal, a summit of the living being, which shows itself in the possibility of personal consciousness.

The initiates of the Old and New Testaments looked down to the animal kingdom; they saw the whole kingdom striving towards the advent of a free personality, which would then be able to act out of its own impulses. With the essential being of such a personality is connected all that makes for egoistic, selfish action. But a thinker like St. Paul would say: If a personality who is able to act egoistically lives in a body, then this body must be mortal. For in an immortal body there could never live a soul who had independence, consciousness, and consequently egoism. Hence a mortal body goes together with a soul having consciousness of personality and a one-sided development of the personality towards impulses to action. This the Bible calls “sin” and thus Paul defines death as the “wages of sin”. Here indeed you see that we have to modify certain biblical sayings because in the course of centuries they have become inverted. And if we do modify them, not by altering their meaning but by making it clear that we change the present theological meaning back to its original one, we see that we often find a very profound understanding of the matter, not far removed from what today we are once again able to grasp. This is mentioned in order to make our position clear.

But the thinkers, the searchers after a world-conception, have in all ages been occupied with the question of death, which for thousands of years we may find answered in apparently the most diverse ways. We cannot embark upon an historical survey of these solutions; hence let us mention here two thinkers only, that you may see how even present-day philosophers cannot contribute anything of consequence about the question. One of these thinkers is Schopenhauer.

You all know the pessimistic trend of his thinking, and whoever has met with the sentence: “Life is a precarious affair and I have decided to spend my life to ponder it”, will understand how the only solution Schopenhauer could arrive at was that death consoles us for life, life for death; — that life is an unpleasant affair and would be unbearable were we not aware that death ends it. If we are afraid of death we need only convince ourselves that life is not any better than death and that nothing is determined by death. — This is the pessimistic way in which he thinks, which simply leads to what he makes the Earth-spirit say: “You wish that new life should always be arising; if that were so, I would need more room.” Schopenhauer therefore is to a certain extent clear that for life to propagate, for it to go on bringing forth fresh life, it is necessary for the old to die to make room for the new. Further than this Schopenhauer has nothing of weight to bring forward, for the gist of anything else that he says is contained in those few words.

The other thinker is Eduard von Hartmann. Von Hartmann in his last book has dealt with the riddle of death, and says: When we look at the highest evolved being we find that, after one or two new generations, a man no longer understands the world. When he has become old he can no longer comprehend youth; hence it is necessary for the old to die and the new again to come to the fore. — In any case you will find no answer here that could bring us nearer to an understanding of the riddle of death.

We will therefore contribute to the present-day world-conceptions what spiritual science — or anthroposophy, as we call it today — has to say about the causes of death and illness. In so doing, however, one thing will have to be made clear — that spiritual science is not so fortunate as the other sciences as to be able to speak in a definite manner about every subject. The modern scientist would not understand that when speaking of illness and death a distinction has to be made between animal and man; and that if the question in our lecture today is to be understood we must limit ourselves to these phenomena in human beings. Since living beings have not only their abstract similarity to one another, but each one has his own nature and individuality, much that is said today will be applicable also to the animal kingdom, perhaps even to the plants. But in essentials we shall be speaking about men, and other things will be drawn upon merely by way of illustration.

If we want to understand death and illness in human beings we must above all consider how complicated human nature is in the sense of spiritual science; and we must understand its nature in accordance with the four members — first the outwardly visible physical body, secondly the etheric or life body, then the astral body, and fourthly the human ego, the central point of man's being. We must then be clear that in the physical body the same forces and substances are present which are in the physical world outside; in the etheric body there lies what calls these substances to life, and this etheric body man possesses in common with the whole plant-kingdom. The astral body which man has in common with the animals is the bearer of the whole life of feeling — of desire, pleasure and its opposite, of joy and pain. It is only man who has the ego and this makes him the crown of earthly creation.

In contemplating man as physical organism we must be aware that within this physical organism the other three members are working as formative principles and architects. But the formative principle of the physical organism works only in part in physical man, in another part is active essentially the etheric body, yet in another the astral body, again in a further part man's ego is active. To spiritual science men consist from the physical side of bones, muscles, those members that support man and give him a form sufficiently firm to move about on the earth. In the strictest sense of spiritual science these things alone are reckoned as belonging to the members which come into being through the physical principle. To them are added the actual sense-organs, where we have to do with physical contrivances — in the eye with a kind of camera obscura, in the ear with a very complicated musical instrument. It is a question here of what the organs are built from. They are built by the first principle. On the other hand all the organs connected with growth, propagation, digestion and so on, are not built simply in accordance with the physical principle, but with that of the etheric or life body, which permeates the physical organs as well. Only the structure built-up in accordance with physical law is in the care of the physical principle, the processes of digestion, propagation and growth, however, being an affair of the etheric principle. The astral body is creator of the whole nervous system, right up to the brain and the fibres which run to the brain in the form of sense-nerve fibres. Finally the ego is the architect of the circulatory system of the blood. If, therefore, in the true sense of spiritual science we have to do with a human organism, it is plain to us that even within the physical organism these four members are blended in a man like four distinct dissimilar beings who have been made to work together. These things which jointly compose the human organism have quite different values, and we shall estimate their significance for men if we look into the way in which the development of the individual members is connected with the human being.

Today we shall speak more from the physiological standpoint of the work of the physical principle in the human organism. This work is accomplished in the period from birth to the change of teeth. At that time the physical principle works upon the physical body in the same way as, before the birth of a child, the forces and substances of the mother's organism work upon the embryo. In the physical body from the seventh year until puberty, the working of the etheric body is paramount, and, from puberty on, that of the forces anchored in the astral body. Thus we have the right conception of man's development when we think of the human being as enclosed within the mother's body up to the moment of birth; with birth he, as it were, pushes back the maternal body and his senses become free, so that it is then possible for the outer world to begin having its effect on the human organism. The human being thrusts a sheath away, and his development is understood only when we grasp that something that resembles a physical birth takes place in spiritual life at the changing of the teeth. At about the seventh year the human being is actually born a second time; that is to say, his etheric body is born to free activity just as his physical body is at the moment of physical birth. As before birth the mother's body works on the human embryo, up to the change of teeth spiritual forces of the cosmic ether in a similar way work upon the etheric body of the human being, and about the seventh year these forces are thrust back just as the maternal body is at the time of birth. Up to the seventh year the etheric body is as if latent in the physical body, and about the time the teeth are changed what happens to the etheric body can be compared to the igniting of a match. It is bound up with the physical body, but now comes to its own free, independent activity. The signal for this free activity of the etheric body is indeed the change of teeth. For anyone who has a deeper insight into nature this change of teeth holds a quite special place. In a human being up to his seventh year we have to do with the free working of the physical principle in the physical body; but united with it and not yet delivered from their spiritual sheaths are the etheric principle and astral principle.

If we study the human being up to his seventh year we find that he contains a great deal of what is founded on heredity, which he has not built up with his own principle but has inherited from his ancestors. To this belongs what are called the milk teeth. Only the teeth that come with the change of teeth are the creation of the child's own principle, which physically has the task of forming firm supports. What is expressed in the teeth is working within up to the time they change; it comes, as it were, to a head and produce in the teeth the hardest part of those members that give support, because it still has bound up within it as bearer of growth the etheric or life body.

After the casting off of this principle, the etheric body gains its freedom and works upon the physical organs up to the time of puberty, when a sheath, the outer astral sheath, is thrust away as the maternal sheath is thrust away at birth. The human being at puberty has his third birth, this time in an astral sense. The forces that were working in connection with the etheric body now come to a culmination with their creative activity in man by bringing him his sex maturity, with its organs and capacity for propagation. As in the seventh year the physical principle comes to maturity in the teeth, creating in them the last hard organs, whereby the etheric body, the principle of growth, becomes free, in like manner the moment the astral principle is free it sets up the greatest concentration of impulses, desires, for the outer expressions of life, in so far as we have to do with physical nature. As we have the physical principle concentrated in the teeth, the principle of growth is thus concentrated in puberty. Then the astral body, the sheath of the ego, is free and the ego works upon the astral body.

The man of culture in Europe does not follow simply his impulses and desires; he has purified them and transformed them into moral perceptions and ethical ideals. Compare a savage to an average European, or perhaps to a Schiller or Francis of Assisi, and it may be said that the impulses of these men have been purified and transformed by their ego. Thus we can say that there are always two parts of this astral body, one arising out of original tendencies, and the other which the ego itself has brought forth. We understand the work of the ego only when we are clear that a man is subject of re-incarnation — to repeated lives on earth — that he brings with him through birth in four different bodies the outcome and the fruits of former earth-lives, which are the measure of his energy and forces for the coming life. One man — because earlier he has brought things to this point — is born with a great deal of energy in life, with forces strong to transform his astral body; another will soon grow weak. When we are able to investigate clairvoyantly how the ego begins to work freely on the astral body and to gain mastery over the desires, impulses and passions, then — if we are able to estimate the amount of energy brought by the ego — we might say: this amount suffices for the ego to work on the transformation for such and such a time and no more. For every human being who has reached puberty possesses a certain amount of energy from which can be estimated when he will have transformed all that comes from his astral body, according to the forces that has been apportioned to him in his life. What man in his heart and mind (Gemüt) transformed and purified, maintains itself. So long as this amount lasts he lives at the cost of his self-maintaining astral body. Once this is exhausted he can summon-up no more courage to transform fresh impulses — in short he has no more energy to work upon himself. Then the thread of life is broken, and this must be broken in accordance with the measure apportioned to each human being. The time has then arrived when the astral body has to draw its forces from the principle of human life lying nearest to it, namely, from the etheric body, the time when the astral body lives at the expense of the force stored up in the etheric body. This comes to expression in the human being when his memory, his creative imaginative force, gradually disappears.

We have often heard here how the etheric body is the bearer of creative imagination, of memory and of all that we call hope and courage in life. When these feelings have acquired a lasting quality they cling to the etheric body. They are then drawn upon by the astral body, and after the astral body has lived in this way at the expense of the etheric body and has sucked up all it had to give, the creative forces of the physical body begin to be consumed by the astral body. When these are consumed, the life-force of the physical body disappears, the body hardens, the pulse becomes slow. The astral body finally feeds upon this physical body too, deprives it of its force; and when it has thus consumed it there is no longer any possibility for the physical body to be maintained by the physical principle.

If the astral body is to reach the point of being free, so that it becomes part of the life and work of the ego, it is then necessary that in the second half of life this emancipated astral body — once the measure of its work being exhausted — should consume its sheaths just as they were formed. In this way the individual life is created out of the ego.

The following is given as an illustration. Imagine you have a piece of wood and that you set it on fire; were the wood not constituted as it is you would be unable to do so. Flames leap out of the wood, at the same time consuming it. It is in the nature of a flame to get free of the wood and then to consume the mother-ground from which it springs. Now the astral body is born three times in this way, consuming its own foundations as the flame consumes the wood. The possibility for individual life arises through the consuming of foundations. The root of individual life is death, and were there no death there could not be any conscious individual life. We understand death only by seeking to know its origin; and we form a concept of life by recognising its relation to death. In a similar way we learn to know the nature of illness, which throws still more light on the nature of death. Every illness is seen to be in some way a destroyer of life.

Now what is illness? Let us be clear what happens when a man as a living being confronts the rest of nature. With every breath, with every sound nourishment and light that he takes up into himself, a man enters into a mutual relation with the nature all around him. If you study the matter closely you will find, without being clairvoyant, that outside things actually form and build the physical organs. When certain animals migrate in dark caverns, in time their eyes atrophy. Where there is no light there can no longer be eyes susceptible to light; vice versa, eyes susceptible to light can be formed only where there is light. For this reason Goethe says that the eye is formed by the light for the light. Naturally the physical body is built in accordance with the ways of its inner architect. Man is a physical being and outer substances are the materials out of which — in harmony with the inner architect — the whole man is built. Then will the relation of individual forces and substances give us a very different picture. Those who have had the true mystic's deeper insight into these matters will have particularly much to tell us here. For Paracelsus the whole external world is one great explanation of the human organism, and a man is like an extract of the whole external world. When we see a plant, in accordance with Paracelsus we may say: In this plant is an organism conforming to law, and there is something in man which, in the healthy or the sick organism, corresponds to this plant. Hence Paracelsus calls a cholera patient, for example, an “arsenicus”, and arsenic is to him the cure for cholera. Thus there exists a relation between each of man's organs and what is around him in nature; we need only take a natural substance, give it human form, and we have man. The single letters of an alphabet are set out in the whole of nature, and we have man if we put them together. Here you get a notion of how the whole of nature works upon man, and how he is called upon to piece his being together out of nature. Strictly speaking, everything in us is drawn from nature outside and taken up into the process of life. When we understand the secret of bringing the external forces and substance to life, we shall be able to form a concept of the nature of illness.

We touch here on ground where it is difficult for educated men of today to understand that there are many spheres in medicine which work in a nebulous way. What a suggestive effect it has in a present-day gathering when someone skilled in nature-healing mentions the word “poison”. What is a poison and how does anything work unnaturally in the human organism? Whatever you introduce into the human organism works in accordance with the laws of nature, and it is a mystery how anyone can speak as if it could work in the body in any other way. Then what is a poison? Water is a strong poison if you consume it by the bucketful in a short time; and what today is poison could have the most beneficial effect if rightly administered. It depends always on the quantity, and under which circumstances, one takes a substance into oneself; in itself, there is no poison.

In Africa there is a tribe who employ a certain breed of dog for hunting. But there is a fly in those parts carrying a poison deadly to the dogs that they sting. Now these savages of the Zambesi river have found a way of dealing with this sting. They take the pregnant dogs to a district where there is an abundance of tsetse flies and let these animals be bitten, choosing the time when they are just going to whelp, with the result that the puppies are immune and can be used for hunting.

Something happens here which is very important for the understanding of life — a poison is taken up into a life process, where a descending line passes over in an ascending one, in such a way that the poison becomes a substance inherent in the organism. What is thus taken from external nature strengthens us and is of use to us.

Spiritual science shows us that in this way the whole human organism is built up — if we like to put it so, simply out of things that were originally poisons. The foods you enjoy today have been made edible by their harmful effects being overcome through a recurrent similar process. We are all the stronger for having thus taken such substances in us; and we make ourselves defenseless against outer nature by rejecting them. — In regions where medicine is founded on occultism, the doctor throws his whole personality into the process. There are cures, for example, for which the doctor administers to himself some kind of snake poison in order to use his saliva as a means to heal bites from that species of snake. He introduces the poison into his own life-process, thereby making himself the bearer of healing forces; he grows strong, and so strengthens others to resist the poison in question.

All that is most harmless in the organism has arisen in this way and the organism has need of the incorporation into it of the external world — of nature; but then it must also be possible for the matter to swing over to the other side like a pendulum. The possibility is always there when a man is exposed to such substances — and at all times he is so exposed — that the effects of the remedy are reversed. The organism is strengthened to resist the remedy the moment it is strong enough to absorb the substance. It is impossible to avoid illness if we wish for health. All possibility of strengthening ourselves against outside influences rests on our being able to have diseases, to become ill. Illness is the condition of health; this development is an absolute reality. It belongs to the very nature and condition of health that a man is obliged to acquire his strength. What survives the beat of the pendulum contains the fruit of immunity from sickness — even from death.

Whoever goes further into these things will indeed gain some kind of understanding of the nature of illness and of death. If we wish to be strong, if we wish for health, then as a preliminary condition we must accept illness into the bargain. If we want to be strong we must arm ourselves against weakness by taking the weakness into us and transforming it into strength. When we grasp this in a living way we shall find illness and death comprehensible. These concepts will be brought to mankind by spiritual science. Today this may well speak to the understanding of many people, but when the understanding has fully accepted the matter it will bring about in man a deep, harmonious mood of soul which will then become the wisdom of life.

Have you not heard that it is possible for anthroposophical truths derived from occultism to become dangerous? Haven't we countless opponents who assert that anthroposophy must be accepted for the strengthening of human beings — that it is not just a subject for discussion but something which proves itself in life to be a spiritual means of healing.

Spiritual science knows too that the physical is built up from the spiritual. If the spiritual forces work upon the etheric body, they work also health giving in the physical body. If our conceptions of the world and of life are sound, then these sound thoughts are most potent remedies, and the truths given out by anthroposophy work injuriously only on those natures who have grown weak through materialism and naturalism. These truths must be taken into the body to make it strong. Only when it produces strong human beings does anthroposophy fulfil its task.

Goethe has answered our questions about life and death in a most beautiful way when saying that everything in nature is life and that nature has only invented death to have more life. 1“Life is here fairest invention, death but her artifice whereby to have much life.” Hymn to Nature. And we might say that besides death she has invented illness to produce greater health; therefore she has had to make of wisdom an apparently harmful remedy, in order that this wisdom may work upon mankind in a strengthening and healing way.

This is just the difference between the world movement of spiritual science and other movements — that it promotes strife and discussion when logical proof of it is demanded. Anthroposophy is not meant simply to be confirmed by logical argument; it is something to make human beings both spiritually and bodily sound. The more it shows its effect on life outside by so enhancing it that life's sorrows are transformed into the happiness of life, the more will anthroposophy prove itself in a really living way. However firmly people today believe they are able to bring forward logical objections to it, spiritual science is something which, appearing to be poison, is transformed into a means of healing, and then works in life in a fructifying way. It does not assert itself by mere logic. It is not to be merely demonstrated — it will prove itself in life.