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The Rudolf Steiner Archive

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The Astral World
GA 107

II. Some Characteristics of the Astral World

21 October 1908, Berlin

This lecture is meant as still introductory to our astral “General Meeting Campaign”, and it will have a particular purpose. It is to show that spiritual science — or rather the special way of observing the world, which underlies it — stands in fullest harmony with certain results of the specifically scientific method. It is not quite easy for the anthroposophist (as can be seen particularly in public lectures) to find complete understanding in a totally unprepared public. When spiritual science meets with an unprepared public, the anthroposophist must be aware that with regard to many things, he speaks quite a different language from those who so far have either heard nothing at all, or only superficially, of the knowledge that underlies the movement of spiritual science.

A certain deeper penetration is needed to find the harmony between what is so easily given today in ordinary science, the experiences of physical research, and what is given to us through the knowledge of the spiritual, the higher, the supersensible consciousness. One must gradually grow accustomed to see deeper into this harmony, and then one will find what a beautiful harmony exists between what is maintained by the spiritual researcher and the statements or enumeration of facts that can be brought forward by physical research. One must not, on this account, be too unjust towards those who cannot understand anthroposophists; they lack all the preparation that is definitely required in order to be able to grasp the results of spiritual research. And so in the majority of cases, they cannot help but think something quite different from what is intended — both in the words and in the ideas. Therefore, in wider circles a greater understanding for spiritual science can be achieved only if one speaks quite openly and frankly from the spiritual standpoint, even before an unprepared public.

Among these unprepared people, there will then be a great number who say, “That is all stupidity — fantastic things, puzzled-out nonsense.” But there will always be a few who, from inmost need of their soul, will get an inkling that there is, nevertheless, something behind it. They will go further and gradually familiarize themselves with it. And it is on such patient study that anthroposophy must depend, and at which we can aim. It will be very natural for a large part of those who come to a lecture on spiritual science from pure curiosity to give vent afterwards to the opinion: “That is a sect that only spreads its own particular gibberish!” But when one knows the difficulties, one will also wait patiently for the selection that must arise. Persons among the public will themselves find their way and form a nucleus through whom spiritual science will then gradually flow into our whole life.

A special example shall be given today to show how easy it is for prepared students of spiritual science, who have already grown accustomed to think and live in the conceptions aroused by spiritual science, to come to terms with the apparently most difficult reports given out by physical-sensible research. The learner will gradually become aware that the farther we advance, the more we will realize what a good foundation spiritual research is for universal knowledge. And that will give the seeker the necessary calmness to meet the storms pouring out against spiritual science, because it speaks quite a foreign language. If we have the patience to accustom ourselves to this harmony, we shall gain more and more assurance. Then when people say, “What you tell me does not agree with the most elementary researches of science,” the anthroposophist will answer, “I know that through what spiritual science can give, full harmony can be found with all these facts, although it is perhaps impossible to come to an understanding in a moment.”

We will now let something pass before our souls as a particular chapter, in order further to strengthen the consciousness.

After living for some time with the spiritual conception of the world, students of spiritual science have become accustomed to speaking of physical body, etheric body, and astral body as ideas, which they can then apply as guides when they are seeking to understand external things from a universal standpoint. They must gradually become used to seeing the difference in the physical nature of the objects around them. They look at the stone and do not say, “The stone consists of such and such materials, the human body consists of the same, and therefore, I can treat the human body just like the stone.” For even the plant body is quite different, though it consists of the same physical materials as the stone. It has the etheric body within it, and the plant's physical body would fall to pieces if the etheric body were not to permeate it in every part. Hence, the spiritual scientist says, “The physical body of the plant would dry away unless the etheric body kept it alive and fought against this dissolution. In regarding the plant, we find that it is a combination of the principles of the physical and etheric bodies.”

Now, it has often been emphasized that the most elementary principle of the etheric body is recapitulation. A being, standing solely under its etheric and physical principles, would express in itself the principle of recapitulation. We see evidence of this in the plant in a very marked degree: We see how leaf after leaf develops, since the plant's physical body is permeated by the recapitulation principle of the etheric. A leaf is formed, then a second and a third; leaf is added to leaf in continuous repetition. And even when the plant comes to a certain conclusion above, recapitulation is still there. There is a kind of wreath of leaves forming the calyx of the flower, though they have a different form from the other leaves. Yet, you feel that it is still a recapitulation of the same leaves in altered form. We may therefore say that the green calyx-leaves up above where the plant ends are a kind of recapitulation. And even the flower petals are a recapitulation. It is true that they have a different color, but in essentials, they are still leaves — greatly transformed leaves.

It was in Goethe's great work in the plant-kingdom that he showed how not only the calyx-leaves and flower petals are transformed leaves, but also how one must see in pistils and stamens just such a metamorphosed repetition. However, it is not a mere repetition that meets us in the plant. If the purely elemental etheric principle were alone active, the plant would come to no termination. The etheric body would press through the plant from below upwards, leaf upon leaf would be developed, and there would never be an end. Then, what makes the flower come to a conclusion, makes it end its existence, begin to be fruitful in order to produce another flower? It is the fact that in the same degree as the plant grows upward, there comes to meet it from above, enclosed in itself, the plant's astral body. The plant possesses in itself no astral body of its own, but as it grows upwards, the plant-like astral body meets it from above. It brings to a conclusion what the etheric body would continue in eternal recapitulation; it causes the transformation of the green leaves into the calyx, flower petals, stamens and pistil.

For occult sight, we can say that the plant grows towards its soul-like part, its astral part, which causes the metamorphosis. Now the fact that the plant remains plant and does not go over to voluntary movement and sensation is because the astral body, which meets the plant there above, does not take inner possession of the organs; it touches them only outwards from above. To the degree that the astral body seizes the organs inwardly, the plant goes over to the animal. That is the great difference. If you take a leaf of the plant, you can say: “Even in the leaf of the plant the etheric body and the astral body are working together, but the etheric body has, so to say, the upper hand. The astral body is not in a position to extend its feelers towards the interior; it works from outside.”

If we want to express that from the spiritual standpoint, we can say: “What is within, in the case of the animal, what it experiences inwardly as pleasure and sorrow, joy and pain, impulse, desire, and instinct, is not within in the plant; it sinks down, however, continuously towards the plant from above.” That is entirely something of a soul-nature. And whereas the animal directs its eyes outwards, has its pleasure in the surroundings, directs its perception of taste outwards and regales itself on some approaching enjoyment, i.e., experiences pleasure inwardly, one who can really regard these things spiritually can affirm that the astral being of the plant also feels joy and pain, pleasure and sadness through looking down upon that which it has brought about. It rejoices over the rose color and over all that comes towards it. And when the plants form leaves and flowers, then the plant-soul permeates and tastes all that as it looks down, and there is an exchange between the soul-part sinking down and the plant itself. The plant-world is there for the happiness — and at times also for the pain — of its soul-part. We can really see an exchange of feeling between the plant-covering of the earth and the earth's astrality, which enfolds the plants and represents their soul nature.

That which works on the plants from without seizes the soul-nature of the animal inwardly and first makes it animal. But there is an important difference between the active soul-nature in the astrality of the plant-world and that in the astrality of animal-life. If you test clairvoyantly what works as astrality on the plant-covering, you find in the soul-nature of the plants a certain sum of forces, and these all have a certain peculiarity. When I speak of plant soul-nature and of the earth's astrality that permeates it and in which the soul nature of the plants plays its part, you must be clear that these plant-souls do not live in their astrality as, for instance, physical beings on our earth.

Plant-souls can interpenetrate each other so that they flow along as in a fluid element. But one thing is characteristic of them; namely, they develop certain forces, and all these forces stream to the central point of the planet. A force works in every plant, which goes from above downwards and strives towards the center of the earth. That is what regulates the direction of the plant's growth. If you lengthen their axes, you come to the earth's center, which is the direction given to the plants by the soul-nature coming from above. If we investigate the soul-nature of the plant, we find that its most important characteristic is that it is rayed through by forces, which all strive towards the center of the earth.

It is different when we consider the astrality around our earth, which belongs to the animal nature. The plant-nature as such would not be able to call forth animal life. To produce the animal nature, it is necessary for still other forces to pass through the astral element. Thus, the occult investigator can distinguish purely from the astrality whether some will produce plant or animal growth. That can be distinguished in the astral sphere, for all astrality, showing only forces that strive towards the center of the earth or of some other planet, will give rise to plant growth. If, on the other hand, forces appear, which in fact stand at right angles to these, but which go round the whole planet as continuous circular movements with extraordinary mobility in every direction, then that is a different astrality, which gives rise to animal life. At any point where you set up observations, you find that the earth in every situation and direction and altitude is surrounded by currents, which, if lengthened, would form circles flowing round the earth. This astrality harmonizes quite well with the plant astrality. They interpenetrate each other and yet are inwardly separate, differing through their inner qualities. Thus, on one and the same spot of the earth's surface, both sorts of astrality can positively stream through each other. If a clairvoyant tests a definite portion of space, forces are found that strive only to the earth's center with others interpenetrating them that are only circular, and of which the clairvoyant knows that they give rise to animal life.

When you consider a physical body, no matter whether plant or animal, you have to look at it as a spatial enclosure and have no right to count something else as belonging to it that is separated from it in space. Where there is spatial separation, you must speak of different bodies; it is a single body when there is spatial connection. This is not so in the astral world, and particularly not so in the astrality that can give rise to the animal kingdom. There, it is a fact that astral structures, widely separated, can make up a single whole. Here in some part of space, there can be an astral structure, and in quite another part of space, there can be another enclosed astral structure; yet, in spite of having not the slightest thread of space in common, these two astral structures can make up a single being. Yes — three, four, five such spatially separated structures can be connected. Even the following can happen.

Suppose you have an astral being that has not embodied itself physically anywhere at all, and you then find another that belongs to this one. Now you observe the former and find something going on in it, which you can call intake of food, consumption of something, since certain substances are taken in and others thrust out. And while you perceive this in the one structure, you can perceive in the second being, spatially separated from the first, other processes going on that correspond to what occurred in the first as absorption of food. On the one hand, the being eats — on the other hand, it experiences the taste, and although there is no spatial connection, the process in the one structure entirely corresponds to the process in the other structure. Thus, astral structures quite separated in space can, nevertheless, belong inwardly to one another.

In fact, a hundred widely separated astral structures may be so interdependent that no process can take place in one without a corresponding process in the others. When the beings take physical embodiment, you can still find echoes of this astral peculiarity. You will have heard of the remarkable parallelism shown by twins. This is because they remain related in their astral bodies, although they are separated spatially through their physical embodiment. So that, when something goes on in the astral body of the one, it cannot take place alone but is expressed in the astral part of the other. Even where it is a case of plant astrality, this peculiarity is shown: the interdependence in things quite separated in space. You will perhaps have already heard of this peculiarity in the plant-nature — how the wine in vessels shows a quite remarkable activity when the grape season comes. What causes the grapes to ripen is to be remarked again even in the wine containers.

I wished only to bring forward the fact that in what is manifested, the hidden is always betrayed and can be brought to light with the methods of occult research. You will acknowledge from this that it does not seem at all unnatural that our whole organism is put together astrally out of quite differentiated members.

There are very singular sea-creatures, which you will understand if you remember what we have now described to some extent of the mysteries of the astral world. It is not at all necessary for the astral forces that bring about the intake of nourishment to be connected with those that regulate movement or reproduction. When the clairvoyant investigator examines astral space for such structures as can give rise to animal life, he finds something very remarkable. He finds a certain astral substantiality, of which he must say that if it worked in an animal body through the forces prevailing in it, it would be particularly fitted to transform the physical and make it an organ for taking nourishment. Now somewhere or other, there can be quite different members of astral being through which, when they submerge into a body, not organs of food-intake are formed but organs of movement or perception. You can conceive that, when on the one hand you have an apparatus for taking in food and again an apparatus for moving hands and feet, forces from the astral world are sunk into you, yet these forces can stream together from quite different sides. The one astral mass of forces has given you the one, the other has given you the other, and they find themselves together in your physical body, because your physical body has to be a connected object in space. That depends on the laws of the physical world. The different force-masses that come together there from outside must form a unity. They did not do so right from the beginning.

What we have just gone into as the result of occult research in the astral field can be definitely confirmed in its effect on the physical world. For there are certain creatures that have a remarkable life as marine creatures. We see in them something like a common stem or trunk, a kind of hollow tube. Above this, on the top, there is a formation that has, actually, no other ability than to fill itself with air and empty itself again. This achievement causes the whole structure to stand upright. If this bell-formed part were not there, then the whole thing that hangs on it could not keep itself upright. It is a kind of balance-being which gives equilibrium to the whole. This may not seem to us so very peculiar. But it is peculiar when we realize that the structure, which is up above and gives balance to the whole being, cannot exist without nourishment. It is of an animal nature and must therefore receive nourishment. Yet, it has no instrument at all for taking in food. But in order that this structure can be fed, there are placed on the hollow stem certain outgrowths — genuine polyps, distributed in all sorts of places; they would continually tumble about and not be able to keep in balance if they had not grown on a common stem. They can absorb nourishment from outside and give it to the whole stem, which they permeate. In that way, the air-balance-being is also nourished. Thus, on the one hand, there is a being that can only keep the balance, and on the other hand one that can only provide nourishment for the whole. But now we have a structure that can be very much held up in the matter of food; when the nourishment is taken in, nothing more is there, and the creature must seek other spots where it can find new food. For this, it must have organs of movement. Care has been taken for this, too, for there are still other structures that have grown on this stem and that have other capacities. They cannot keep the balance or provide nourishment, but instead, they possess certain muscular formations. These structures can draw themselves together and so press out the water. This causes a counter-thrust in the water, so that when the water is pressed out, the whole structure must move towards the other side and so be enabled to reach other creatures for food. The “medusae” move forward by pressing out water and in this way causing a counter-thrust. And such medusae, which are genuine movement-creatures, have now also grown on there. So here you have a conglomeration of differing animal formations, one kind that only keeps balance, another that only nourishes, and then other beings that provide movement.

If such a being, however, were no more than this, it would lie out entirely; it could not reproduce itself. But even this is provided for. Again, on other places of the stem, there grow ball-shaped forms that have no other capacity than reproduction. In a hollow space inside these beings, male and female fertilization substances are developed; they mutually fructify each other and beings of their own kind are brought forth. Thus the reproductive process in these beings is delegated to quite distinct formations that have no other capacity at all. In addition, you still find certain outgrowths on this common stem; these are beings in which everything is stunted; they are only there as a protection, so that what lies beneath has a certain protection. They have sacrificed themselves, have surrendered all else and become only protective polyps.

Still to be remarked are certain long threads called “tentacles”, which again are metamorphosed organs. These have none of the faculties of the other structures, but if the creature is attacked by some hostile creature, the “tentacles” repulse the attack; they are defensive organs. And still another kind of organ is there, which one calls “touchers”, “feelers”. These are fine, mobile, and very sensitive organs of feeling and touch — a kind of sense-organ. The sense of feeling, which in a human being is spread over the whole body, exists here in a special member.

Now what does this siphonophore — the name of this creature that you see swimming about in the water — mean to one who can look at things with the sight of an occultist? Here are the most varied structures astrally crowded together, creatures of nourishment, of movement, of reproduction, etc. And since these various good qualities of astral substance wish to incorporate physically, they had to string themselves on a common substantiality. So, here you see a being that predicts the human being to us in an extremely remarkable way!

Imagine that all the organs, appearing here as independent entities, were in an inward contact with each other, had developed together: then you have the human being and the higher animals in a physical respect. Here, through plain facts of the physical world, you see the confirmation of what is shown by occult research: namely, that in the human being, too, the most diverse astral forces stream together. These, we each hold together through our ego, and when they no longer work together as a being, feeling itself a unity, they make an individual strive apart in different directions. It is related in the Gospel, how so and so many demonic beings are in the man, which have streamed together in order to form a unity. And you also remember how in certain abnormal conditions, when there is mental illness, the person loses the inner connection. There are cases of insanity, where people can no longer hold fast to their ego and feel that they are split up into different parts; they confuse themselves with the original partial structures that have streamed together in them.

There is a certain occult principle, which asserts that everything present in the spiritual world ultimately betrays itself somewhere in the world of the senses. So you see what is interconnected in the human astral body embodied physically in such a siphonophore. The hidden world spies through a peep-hole into the physical. If human beings had not been able to delay their incorporation until they could achieve the suitable physical density, then they would be—not physically but spiritually — beings put together out of such a piece-work. Size has nothing at all to do with it. This type of creature — which belongs to the species of hollow creatures, described today by every natural history, and which, in a certain respect, form a kind of fascination for the material-science researcher — becomes inwardly comprehensible when we can understand it out of the occult principles of animal astrality. This is such an example, and you can listen calmly to one who speaks quite a different language and says that physical research contradicts the statements of anthroposophy. For you can reply that, if one patiently allows time to show the agreement, then harmony will certainly be displayed, even in most complicated things. The concept of "evolution" held by most people is a very simple one. Evolution has, however, taken place by no means so simply.

In conclusion, I should like to raise a kind of problem, which shall stand as a task for us to seek to solve from the occult standpoint. We have seen an important occult truth demonstrated externally in a relatively lower animal. Let us now pass to a somewhat higher animal species — the fish — which can give us still more riddles. I will put before you only a few characteristics.

When you observe fish in aquariums, you can again and again be amazed at the wonderful life of the water. But do not imagine that any occult insight will disturb these reflections. When you shed light there with the facts of occult research and see what still other hidden beings swim about just in order to form these creatures as they are, then the understanding will not lessen your wonder but only increase it. Let me, however, take an ordinary fish — it presents us with quite potent riddles. The average fish has, in the first place, remarkable stripes running along the sides, which appear also on the scales in another form. They run along both sides like two lines of longitude. If you were to deaden these two lines, the fish would behave as if it were mad. For then, it would have lost the power of finding the differences of pressure in the water — where the water gives greater support or less; where it is thinner and denser; the fish would no longer be able to move according to the pressure differences in the water. Water differs in density at different places, so that an uneven pressure is exercised. The fish moves at the surface of the water differently from below, and through these lines of longitude, it perceives the different pressures and all the movements produced by the fact that the water is in movement.

But now, through fine organs, which you find described in every natural-history book, the separate points of these lines of longitude are connected with the fish's quite primitive organ of hearing. The way in which the fish is aware of the movements and inner life of the water is just the same as the way in which we humans perceive the pressure of air — only that the conditions of pressure are felt first in the lines of longitude and are then transmitted to the hearing organ. The fish hears that; however, things are still more complicated.

The fish has a swimming-bladder that enables it in the first place to make use of the pressure of the water and to move just in definite conditions of pressure. The pressure on the swimming-bladder gives it the art of swimming, but because the different movements and vibrations touch upon the bladder and affect it like a membrane, this reacts on the hearing organ, and with the help of the hearing organ, the fish orientates itself in all its movements. The swimming-bladder is thus actually a kind of membrane, which is stretched out and which comes into vibrations that the fish hears. Where the fish's head ends towards the back, there are the gills, and these enable the fish to use the air of the water in order to breathe.

If you follow up all these things in the ordinary biological theories on evolution, you always find evolution presented somewhat primitively. The head of the fish is thought to evolve somewhat higher, and then the head of a more highly-organized animal arises; the fins evolve further, and then the organs of movement of the higher animals arise, and so on. But the matter is not so simple when one follows the processes with spiritual observation.

For in order that a spiritual structure that has embodied itself to form the fish may evolve higher, something much more complicated must happen. A great part of the organs must be transformed and turned inside out. The same forces that work in the fish's swimming-bladder conceal in themselves — in a mother-substance, as it were — the forces that the human being has in the lungs. But they are not lost. Tiny pieces remain behind — only turned inside out — everything material vanishes, and they then form our human ear drumskin. The eardrum, spatially considered, stands at a distance in man; it is, in fact, a portion of that membrane, and forces work within it that have functioned in the swimming-bladder of the fish. And further: the gills are transformed into the little bones of the ear, at least in part, so that in the human organ of hearing you have, for instance, transformed gills. Now you see that it is somewhat as if the fish's swimming-bladder, were turned over the gills. In human beings, therefore, you have the eardrum outside, the hearing organs inside. And what is quite outside in the fish — the remarkable lines of longitude through which the fish orientates itself—form in human beings the three semi-circular canals through which we keep our balance. If you destroyed these three semi-circular canals we would become giddy and could no longer keep our balance.

So you do not have just a simple process from natural history, but instead, a marvelous astral work, where things are indeed continually turned inside out. Imagine that you had a glove on this hand with patterns on it that were elastic. If you now reverse it, turn it inside out, it would become a quite tiny picture. So do the organs that were outside become small and tiny, and the organs that were inside will form a broad surface. We understand evolution only when we know that in the most mysterious way, such a reversal takes place in the astral and how, in this way, the progress of the spiritual takes place.