Donate books to help fund our work. Learn more→

The Rudolf Steiner Archive

a project of Steiner Online Library, a public charity

The Principle of Spiritual Economy
GA 109

I. The Principle of Spiritual Economy in Connection with Questions of Reincarnation: An Aspect of the Spiritual Guidance of Mankind

Heidelberg, January 21, 1909

We shall discuss a few intimate questions of reincarnation that can be examined only in a circle of well prepared anthroposophists. By this we mean not only that they should be well prepared in theoretical knowledge but also that they have developed their sensitive faculty by working with others in a branch. For we all remember that our perceptions and sensibilities for truth have changed by virtue of this collaboration. What today we do not merely believe but perceive as truths that are beyond the realm of faith used to be incredible to us in earlier days and today still appears as fantastic nonsense or reverie to outsiders. Thus it is an indication of advancement if people have become accustomed to really living in these perceptions for only then can they begin to consider special questions. Much of what will be mentioned here seems to be remote, and yet even though we will first have to go back to far-distant periods of human evolution, all these things have an enlightening effect on our understanding of life and its phenomena. We must start by putting before our souls how the process of reincarnation takes place in general.

When human beings pass through the portal of death, they first have certain experiences. Their first experience is the feeling that they are growing larger or that they are growing out of their skin. This has the effect of the human being attaining another perception of things than was the case earlier in physical life. Everything in the physical world has its definite place—either here or there—outside the observer, but that is not so in this new world. There, it is as if the human being were inside the objects, extended with or within them, whereas earlier he or she was only a separate object in its own place. The second experience after death consists of a human being's attaining a “memory tableau” of the life just completed, so that all events in it recur in comprehensive memory. This process lasts a definite amount of time. For reasons that cannot be stated here today, the duration of this memory is shorter or longer, depending on the individual. In general, the duration of this state can be determined from the length of time each human being was able to stay awake during the past life, continuously and without once succumbing to the forces of sleep. Supposing that the outer limit for a person's staying awake continuously had been forty-eight hours, then the memory tableau after death will also be forty-eight hours. And thus, this stage is like an overview of the past life.

Then the etheric body leaves the astral body, in which the ego is living. All three had been connected from the time they left the physical corpse, but now the etheric body separates itself from the other two and becomes an etheric corpse. However, today's human beings do not lose their etheric body completely but take an extract or excerpt along with them for all the times to follow. So in this sense the etheric corpse is cast off, but the fruit of the last life is carried along by the astral body and by the ego. If we want to be quite precise, we will have to say that something is taken along from the physical body as well: a kind of spiritual abstract of this body—the tincture medieval mystics spoke about. However, this abstract of the physical being is the same in all lives; it merely represents the fact that the ego had been embodied. On the other hand, the essence of the etheric body is different in all lives, depending on what one has experienced in a life and on the degree of one's progress in it.

There follows the condition of what is called kamaloca, the time of weaning the soul from the effects of physical, sensuous existence, which lasts about a third of the time of a person's physical life. After the etheric body has been cast off, the astral body still contains all the passions, desires, and so on that it had at the end of life; they must be lost and purified, and that is kamaloca. Then the astral body is cast off and here, too, the fruit, the astral essence, is taken along; but the rest—the astral corpse—dissolves into the astral world. The human being now enters devachan where he or she prepares in the spiritual world for a new life in the future. Here human beings live with spiritual events and beings until they are again called into the physical world, be it because the karma of a person demands it or because an individual is needed on the physical earth.

This is a general description of the process. However, life in the spiritual realm progresses steadily in that the future joins itself to the past, and coming events are shaped with the help of past events. If one considers the details of this process, there is much among the wondrous things that become apparent, which is not contained in a simple presentation of the process of reincarnation. It is, after all, clear that great differences exist when one looks at the course of human development and that the extracts or abstracts of their bodies can have different values depending on the kinds of fruit they were able to extract from life. And when we remember that there are great leaders of humanity, initiates who lead other human beings into the spiritual worlds, then we have to ask ourselves this question: What causes the accomplishments of the initiates to be preserved for the future? External history is, of course, incapable of providing an answer to this question. What we have to do is scrutinize the reincarnation of the initiates and then apply the results of our investigation. We will begin with the oldest initiates.

Before humanity inhabited the continents as we know them today, the physiognomy of the earth was quite different. The area that is today covered by the Atlantic Ocean used to be the continent of Atlantis, which was destroyed by great catastrophes, as is reported by many peoples in their “saga of the great flood.” The Atlanteans—and that is we ourselves—had their great leaders and initiates, and even in those days there existed places of instruction or schools where the initiates taught. The existence of these schools can be verified today by clairvoyant investigation. A good name for these schools where the leaders taught and lived is the word “oracle.” the most important leader lived in one of the largest and most important oracles—the Sun Oracle. His main task consisted of revealing the secrets of the SUN—not the physical, external sun, but the real SUN. The latter consists of spiritual beings who make use of the physical sun much in the same way as human beings make use of the earth. To perceive and reveal the inner secrets of this Sun-existence was the task of the Great Sun Oracle. For it, sun light was not something physical, but rather every ray of sunshine represented the deed of the spiritual beings who reside on the sun. These great beings were exclusively on the sun during the time of ancient Atlantis. Later, when the great Being who was to be called the Christ united with the earth, this was no longer the case. Therefore, one can also call the Sun Oracle the Christ Oracle. The unification of the Christ-Being with the earth took place when the blood flowed from the wounds of Jesus Christ at Golgotha. That is when His essence united with the atmosphere of the earth, as can be perceived even today in clairvoyant retrospection. That is how the Christ-Being came down from the Sun to earth. When the light of spiritual illumination fell on Saul-Paul near Damascus, Paul beheld the Christ that was united with the earth and knew immediately that it was He who had shed His blood at Golgotha.

The sun oracle of ancient Atlantis had already prophesied the coming of Christ, of the Sun-God. To be sure, he was named the Christ only much later, but we can still say that the Sun Oracle is the Christ Oracle. These oracles had many successors in later periods, such as the Jupiter, Mars, Venus, Mercury, and Vulcan oracles, each with its great mysteries and teachings. Toward the end of the Atlantean era a group of advanced human beings was formed in the vicinity of what is today Ireland. The Great Leader chose a few from their midst who should carry on cultural life when the impending catastrophe would finally take place. However, enormous migrations had taken place a long time before to the continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa, which were beginning to rise out of the sea. Many successors of the old oracles came into being on these continents, but not without gradually losing the significance of the old oracles. The Great Leader, however, chose the best people in order to lead them into a special land. They were plain and simple people who were different from most other Atlanteans in that they had almost completely lost their clairvoyance. You will remember that the majority of the Atlanteans were clairvoyant. When they fell asleep at night, they did not lose consciousness, but rather the sense world disappeared and there arose in its place the spiritual world in which they were the companions of divine-spiritual beings. The advanced people in Atlantis had begun to develop their intellect, yet they were simple people who possessed inner warmth and were deeply devoted to their leader. He took this select group East to the center of Asia, where he founded the center of the post-Atlantean culture. After the group had arrived in central Asia, it was kept in isolation from the human beings who were unsuited to the task. The descendants of this group were educated with special care, and only they developed the qualities necessary to make them great teachers.

All this happened in a mysterious way. It was the task of the Manu, the Great Leader, to make the necessary preparations for preserving for the new race everything that was good in the Atlantean culture and thus to lay the foundation for the progression of a new culture. The sages living in the smaller oracles were unable to devote themselves to this task because only the Manu had preserved from the great initiates of the oracles that which we call the etheric body. As we have seen, this etheric body normally dissolves as the second corpse, but in certain cases it was preserved. The greatest of these sages in the oracles had worked so much into their etheric bodies that the latter had become too valuable simply to be dissipated into the general etheric world. Therefore, the seven best etheric bodies belonging to the seven greatest initiates were preserved until the Manu had developed the seven most outstanding people from his group in such a way that they were suited to absorb the preserved etheric bodies. Only the etheric body of the Great Initiate of the Christ Oracle was, in a certain sense, treated differently from the others. And so the seven sages, or Rishis, who had received the seven etheric bodies of the greatest initiates, went to India, where they became the founders and great teachers of Indian culture.

This very ancient, holy culture of the pre-Vedic era originated from the seven Rishis who bore the preserved etheric bodies of the initiates of the various oracles, such as Venus, Jupiter, Mars, and so on. In a way, a copy of those initiates, a repetition of their capabilities, came to be at work in these Rishis, even though they were plain and simple people when seen from the outside. Their significance was not evident from their external appearance, nor was their intellect commensurate with the loftiness of their prophecies. Possessing their own astral bodies and egos but being endowed with the etheric bodies of those great sages, these Rishis were not scholars and did not rank so highly in terms of their power of judgment as did many of their contemporaries, or even as many people in our times. But in inspired ages they were, in a way, seized upon by these oracle beings whose etheric bodies became active in them. In that sense they were only instruments through whom that ancient wisdom was proclaimed—those Vedas that are far too difficult, if not incomprehensible, for human beings in our age. And this is how the old wisdom of the ancient oracles was revealed, with the exception of the Sun, or Christ, Oracle which could not be completely revealed in such a way. Only a faint reflection of the Sun-wisdom could be transmitted because it was so lofty that even the Holy Rishis could not grasp it.

We can see here that reincarnation does not always proceed as smoothly and in such general ways as is often supposed. Rather, if an etheric body is especially valuable, it is—to express it metaphorically—preserved like a mold that can be imprinted on human beings of later ages. Such an occurrence is not all that rare, and many a plain person can have an extremely valuable etheric body that is preserved for later use. Not all etheric bodies dissolve after death, but some of those that are especially useful are transferred to other human beings. But the “I” of the individual receiving the etheric or astral body is not at all identical with the ego of the donor. Disregarding this fact can easily lead to great misconceptions on the part of someone who investigates a human being's past with faulty clairvoyant methods. It is for this reason that the occult theories about the earlier lives of human beings are often completely wrong, just as it would be wrong to say that the seven Rishis had the same egos as the initiates whose etheric bodies they had received.

Only when we know such things can we gain clarity about much that is important in human evolution, such as the preservation of human achievements for nature's economy. It is through the transmission of these seven etheric bodies that the highest values of the Atlantean culture were saved and preserved for posterity.

Let us discuss another example, which could not be mentioned earlier, and look at the ancient Persian time, the period of Zarathustra's culture.1The “original” Zarathustra (or Zoroaster) Rudolf Steiner refers to in these lectures is not the historical religious teacher and prophet of ancient Persia whose dates are ca. 628–551 B.C., but the prophet who, according to early Christian tradition and according to Plutarch was born about 6400 B.C. He gave the impulse for the founding of the second post-Atlantean epoch. We consider it an important period because it was the first post-Atlantean time in which greater emphasis was placed on the conquest of the physical world. During the Indian epoch, the longing for the spiritual realm dominated the thinking of human beings. Most of them considered the spiritual world as being real and felt like strangers in the physical realm, which to them was transitory, illusory, maya.2The term maya in the Hindu Veda means magic power, but in Mahayana Buddhism it denotes illusion or non-reality; and this is how Steiner uses the term. This consciousness changed in the prehistoric Persian culture through the teachings of Zarathustra, that is to say the teachings of the original and first Zarathustra, because there were many Zarathustras after him. His task as a leader was to draw the attention of human beings to the physical plane, to make inventions, manufacture instruments and tools, and thus to conquer the physical world. This was necessary because human beings had to become acquainted with the physical world as something that was important to them. However, the tempter within a human being tells him or her that the physical is the only reality and that there exists nothing beyond the earthly realm. This belief, Zarathustra teaches, is false because behind the physical there is the spiritual world, just as the physical sun is for us the external sign of the great Sun-Being, of the Spiritual-Divine, of the Great Aura, of Ahura Mazdao, of Ormuzd. These names designate a Being that is now physically invisible and lives far away from the earth on the sun. But, as goes Zarathustra's teaching, some day this Being will reveal Itself; later It will make Its appearance on earth, just as It is now present on the sun.

Zarathustra initiated his most intimate students into these mysteries, but the most profound teachings he imparted to two of them. The first one was primarily instructed in everything that concerns human judgment, such as natural science, astronomy and astrology, agriculture, and other disciplines. All this knowledge was transmitted to this one disciple by a secret process of communication between the two. This prepared the disciple in such a way that in the following reincarnation he was able to carry the astral body of his teacher; and he was reincarnated as Hermes,3Historical scholarship usually considers Hermes as a mythical figure in ancient Egypt, but Steiner thinks he was a living prophet who appeared about 4200 B.C. when the sun moved into Taurus. According to historical speculation the so-called Hermetic books—metaphysical pronouncements about the community of all beings and things—were authored by the Egyptian god Thoth (the Thrice Great), whose name was often translated into Greek as Hermes Trismegistus. the great teacher and sage of the Egyptian Mysteries. Born with Zarathustra's astral body, Hermes became the bearer of the great wisdom.

The second intimate disciple was instructed in the subject matters that express themselves especially in the etheric body and are deeper in substance. This disciple received in the following incarnation the etheric body of Zarathustra. The stories about this in religious documents are comprehensible only through these explanations. At his reincarnation, the student had to be animated in a very special way, that is the etheric body had to be strong before the astral body could be awakened. That could be achieved through the circumstances surrounding the birth of this reincarnated disciple, who was none other than Moses. The fact that he was placed into a box made of bulrushes that was allowed to float on the water and so on had the purpose of awakening completely the etheric body of the child. That enabled Moses to survey in his memory times long past, to pictorially record the genesis of the earth, and to read in the Akasha Chronicle.4The “Akasha Chronicle” is an occult “script” containing the complete story of the universe. Occultists of all ages have tried to “read” it by freeing themselves from the limitations of time and space. Rudolf Steiner had refined his spiritual faculties to such a degree that he was able to read the “Akasha Chronicle.” To understand his work, it is necessary to assume that he did possess this capacity. For a thorough description of the nature of the Akasha Chronicle, see Rudolf Steiner, Cosmic Memory, pp. 38–41. And, thus, one sees that these things are at work behind the scenes, as it were, and that through this process everything valuable is preserved and re-utilized.

There are other examples from later times, for example Nicholas of Cusa (Cusanus),5Nicholas of Cusa (1401?–1464) was a German humanist, scientist, and philosopher of the highest rank who became Bishop of Brixon in 1450. His astounding achievements in science included a theory that the Earth revolves on its axis around the sun and that the stars are different worlds. a curious personality of the fifteenth century. Here we can see the interesting case of how the research of this man, as it were, laid the groundwork for the entire body of the teaching of Copernicus,6Polish-born Nicholas Copernicus (1473–1543) was the founder of modern astronomy. His main work on the orbits and revolutions of heavenly bodies, completed in 1530, but not published until 1543 when he was on his deathbed, expressed his views on the structure of the physical universe. who lived in the sixteenth century. To be sure, this body of teaching is not yet quite as ripe in Cusa's books as in those written by Copernicus, but they contain all the essential ideas, a fact that confounds most traditional scholars. The fact is that the astral body of Cusa was transferred to Copernicus even though the ego of the latter was different from that of Cusa. This is how Copernicus received the foundation and all the preparations for his own doctrine.

Similar cases occur often. What is especially valuable is always preserved; nothing vanishes. But this fact also enhances the possibility of error in any attempt to establish correspondences, especially when people attempt to investigate the earlier lives of a human being with the help of a medium in séance. The transfer of an etheric or astral body to a human being in more modern times usually happens now in such a way that an astral body is transferred to a member of the same language group, whereas an etheric body can be transferred to a member of another language group.

When a pioneering personality dies, his or her etheric body is always preserved, and occult schools have always known the artifical methods by which this was accomplished. Considering now another characteristic case, we can say that it was important for certain purposes in the more modern age that the etheric body of Galileo7Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) was the great Italian astronomer, mathematician, and physicist who laid the foundations of modern experimental science. The time of his death in the text (toward the end of the seventeenth century) is an error in transcription. should be preserved. He was the great reformer of mechanical physics whose accomplishments were so tremendous that one can say many of the purely practical accomplishments of the modern age would not have come about without his discoveries, for all technical progress rests on Galileo's science. The tunnels of St. Gotthart or Simplon have become possible only because Leibniz,8Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (1646–1716) was the famous German philosopher, mathematician, and statesman who invented calculus independent from Newton and is widely regarded as the founder of symbolic logic. His philosophical achievements include the Theodicy and the famous Monadology. Newton,9Sir Isaac Newton (1642–1727) was the great English mathematician and physicist whose works marked a turning point in modern experimental science. Few people know that in the later years of his life Newton spent much of his time in the study of theology and alchemy. and Galileo developed the sciences of integral and differential calculus, mechanics, and so on. With regard to Galileo, it would have been a waste in nature's economy had his etheric body, the carrier of his memory and talent, been lost. And that is why his etheric body was transferred to another human being: Michail Lomonosov,10Michail Vasilyevich Lomonosov (1712–65) was perhaps the most outstanding scientist, scholar, and writer of eighteenth-century Russia. who came from a poor Russian village and was later to become the founder of Russian grammar and classical literature. Lomonosov, however, is not the reincarnated Galileo, as might be supposed as a result of superficial investigation.

And thus we see that there are many such cases and that the process of reincarnation is not so simple as most people of our time think. If, therefore, people investigate earlier incarnations with the help of occult methods, they have to exercise much greater caution. In many instances, it is nothing but childishness if people state or imagine they are the reincarnated such and such, perhaps Nero, Napoleon, Beethoven, or Goethe. Such silly things must, of course, be rejected. But the matter becomes more dangerous when advanced occultists make mistakes in this regard and imagine that they are the reincarnation of this or that man, when in fact they carry only his etheric body. Not only is this an error that is regrettable in itself, but the human being coming to these conclusions would live under the influence of this mistaken idea, and that would have nearly catastrophic consequences. The result of such an illusion would be that the whole development of the soul proceeds in the wrong direction.

We have seen not only that the egos are capable of reincarnation, but that the lower members of the human constitution in a certain sense undergo a similar process. The result of this is that the whole configuration of the process of reincarnation is much more complicated than is usually supposed. And thus we see that the ego of Zarathustra was reincarnated as Zarathas—Nazarathos, who in turn became the teacher of Pythagoras.11Pythagoras (c. 582–c. 507 B.C.) was a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher and mathematician of whose personal life traditional science knows little. He migrated from his native Samos to Gotona and established a mystery center. The followers of Pythagoras believed, among other things, in the transmigration of souls. On the other hand, Zarathustra's astral body reappeared in Hermes and his etheric body in Moses. Therefore, nothing is lost in the world; everything is preserved and transmitted to posterity, provided it is valuable enough.