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Background to the Gospel of St. Mark
GA 124

VII. The Higher Members of Man's Constitution

28 February 1911, Berlin

If, as I have have proposed, we are to continue our study of certain matters relating to St. Mark's Gospel, we shall have to give a very wide interpretation to this aim; and it may be only after a considerable time that we shall see where a particular line of study belongs. To-day we shall speak of matters which, although they may seem to be remote from the main theme, will be of great help later on.

In the first place I want to emphasise that those who are not actually Members of our Movement, as long as they have not to some extent familiarised themselves with the real trend of spiritual-scientific thought, will always fail to understand what meaning and value any investigation based upon clairvoyance can have for people who as yet have no such faculties. It may well be asked: How can any belief in or conviction of spiritual truths come to those who cannot see into the spiritual worlds? Here we must keep on repeating that although it is not possible to see into the spiritual worlds as long as the eyes of clairvoyance are unopened, nevertheless the effects and manifestations of what is within those worlds are continually in evidence. For instance, when it is stated on the basis of clairvoyant investigation that man consists of four members—physical body, etheric body, astral body and Ego—someone to whom clairvoyant investigation means nothing, might say: I see only the physical body; how can I convince myself that what is said about the etheric and astral bodies is true before my karmas makes it possible for me actually to see them? Now it is easy enough, if you so wish, to deny the existence of the astral body and etheric body; but the consequences of processes taking place in those bodies cannot be argued away because they are quite apparent in life. And in order that you may gradually come to understand that the structure of man's being and constitution is taken for granted in many expressions used in the Gospels, I want to-day to show you how the consequences of processes in the etheric or the astral body, for example, are clearly evident in everyday life on the physical plane.

Let us first of all consider the difference between a man who is full of idealism, who sets himself high ideals, and one who, generally speaking, lacks any such inclination, who acts only in response to external stimuli, eating when he is hungry, sleeping when he is drowsy and allowing instinct or desire or passion to drive him to whatever action he may take. Naturally there are any number of intermediate stages between the two types of men—those of the kind last described and those others whose purposes, thoughts and ideals infinitely transcend anything they are able to achieve in everyday life. Idealists such as this are in a peculiar position. They have to learn and to accept as a fact that in life on the physical plane our actions can never wholly conform with our highest ideals. An idealist always has to accept the fact that actions must inevitably fall short of his ideals. Strictly speaking, then, it must be admitted that in ideals there is always something loftier than actual deeds. From the standpoint of Spiritual Science the mark of the idealist is that his thoughts are loftier than his deeds.

Of the other type of individual the opposite can be said, namely, that his thoughts are of less account than his actions. A man who acts only out of instincts, passions, desires or similar urges, lacks the quality of thought that would be capable of comprehending the results of his deed at any particular moment; happenings to which he gives no thought at all ensue from what he does on the physical plane. His purposes and thoughts are narrower in scope and more restricted than his actions, his deeds, on the physical plane.

The clairvoyant has something to tell us about these two types of men. When we perform a deed in life that is of greater importance than our thoughts, this deed always casts a reflected image, a mirror-picture, into our astral body: indeed after every single deed we perform an image, a picture, is left in the astral body. This image subsequently imprints itself on the etheric body and in that form remains perceptible in the Akasha Chronicle, so that a clairvoyant is able to see the reflected pictures of what a man has done during the course of his life. Similarly, when actions fall short of the fulfilment of the ideals, reflected pictures are left in the astral body and again impressed upon the etheric body. But there is one great difference between the reflected pictures of actions springing from instincts, desires and passions, and the reflected pictures of actions which are the outcome of idealism. The first contain something which endures as a destructive element in a man's whole life; they are images held in the astral body which react upon the whole human constitution and gradually undermine it; they are closely connected with the way in which a man in his life on the physical plane slowly undermines his forces until he dies. On the other hand, reflected pictures or images springing from thoughts that are loftier than our actions have life-giving properties. They are particularly stimulating for the etheric body and continually bring new life-giving forces into our whole constitution.

Thus according to the findings of clairvoyance we have within our constitution on the physical plane forces which destroy and also forces which continually impart new life. As a rule the effect of these forces in our lives can be easily observed. We meet human beings who are surly, hypochondriacal, morose in temperament, unable to come to terms with their own soul-life which in turn reacts upon their physical organism. They become apprehensive and uneasy, and anxiety, if it is persistent, manifestly undermines their physical health. In short, there are individuals who in their later years become melancholic, sullen, unable to adjust themselves inwardly and are in many respects unbalanced. If we were to look for the cause of bearing and conduct of this kind we should find that such individuals had little opportunity in earlier life to experience how idealistic thought can be loftier than action.

In everyday life these things are often unnoticed, although the effects cannot be denied. Many individuals feel the effects very strongly as the prevailing mood of their whole life of soul; they may even feel them in their bodily constitution. The existence of the astral body may be denied but not its consequences, for they are matters of actual experience. And when things of this kind can be observed in ordinary life, people ought to realise that it is not, after all, so very foolish to assert that although supersensible happenings and facts can be observed only by a clairvoyant, anyone can perceive their manifestations in actual life.

On the other hand, actions which inevitably fall short of their corresponding thoughts leave impressions which manifest themselves in later life as courage, confidence, balance. These qualities work right into the physical organism; but the connections will be perceived only if life is observed not in short sections but over a lengthy period. The error of many scientific observations is that conclusions about some effects are drawn on the basis of what happens in the course, say, of the next five years, whereas in many cases the effects show themselves only after decades.

But as well as individuals who are idealists, whose thoughts are loftier than a particular experience there are others whose thoughts always fail to keep pace with their experiences. There are very many experiences which can be grasped in thought only with the greatest difficulty. We eat and drink every day by instinct or as the result of desire: but it takes a very long time, even for one who is undergoing spiritual development, to relate these things too to the spiritual life. In point of fact, everyday things are more difficult than any others to bring into relation with the spiritual life. In the case of eating and drinking we shall have achieved this only when we have discovered why, in order to serve the course of the world's evolution, we have to take physical substances into ourselves in a rhythmic process, and what connection these physical substances have with spiritual life. We then find that metabolism is not a physical process only, but by virtue of its rhythm also has in it something essentially spiritual.

Now there is a way in which things not merely demanded by external necessity can be gradually spiritualised. When we are eating fruit, let us say, such spiritual knowledge as we possess enables us to form an idea of how the fruit—an apple, for instance—is related to the universe as a whole. Admittedly, however, this takes a long time. We can also train ourselves to regard eating as being something more than a merely physical activity and to remember how the spirit participates by way of the sun's rays in the ripening of the fruit. We can thus spiritualise the most material, everyday processes and learn to penetrate them with our thoughts. I can do no more than indicate here how thoughts and ideas can penetrate into processes of this kind. It is a long business and in our time very few people indeed can develop adequate thoughts about eating.

We shall therefore admit that there are individuals who act purely on the basis of instinct and others who act on the basis of ideals. The life of every human being divides itself in such a way that in some cases the thoughts cannot keep abreast of the actions and in others the range of the thoughts and ideals is greater than that of the actions. We have within us, on the one hand, forces which lead our life into decline and work in such a way that our physical organism matures through inner causes towards death. And we have within us other forces which bring life to our astral and etheric bodies and shine out within them like a new light. It is these latter forces which remain in our etheric body as life-giving forces. When at death the spiritual part of our being abandons its physical sheath, the etheric body is still around us during the first few days, making it possible for us to have the backward survey over our whole life of which I have often spoken.

The most valuable thing remaining to us as an inwardly formative, upbuilding power are these life-giving forces, originating from the fact that our ideas have transcended the bounds of our actions. These forces continue to work in us after death and actually provide further life-giving forces for the following incarnation.

Life-giving forces, then, implanted by ourselves, remain in the etheric body as an element that is always young. And although we cannot thereby prolong our life, we can enable the freshness of youth to remain for a longer period by ensuring that our thoughts transcend the range of many of our actions.

If we ask what is the best way of acquiring ideals which transcend our actions we shall find it possible if we devote ourselves to Spiritual Science. When, for instance, we learn from Spiritual Science of the evolution of man, forces are set astir in the higher members of our being and this gives rise to idealism in the most concrete, most balanced form. One of the achievements of Spiritual Science is to pour fresh, youthful, fertile forces into our astral and etheric bodies.

The very different attitudes to Spiritual Science adopted by individuals in this modern age are due not to the fact that these individuals have no clairvoyant faculties but that in everyday life their observation is not sufficiently exact. Otherwise they would see in what different ways the human soul and spirit manifest themselves in the physical organism. People who thoroughly disbelieve in Spiritual Science may hear that the physical body of man is somehow permeated by certain higher members. Let us take them together and simply call them the soul-and-spirit. But present-day materialists will not believe in the existence of this man of soul-and-spirit: they believe only in physical man and are in this respect particularly materialists. By ‘materialists’ people often mean simply the theoretical materialists, who believe only in matter. But as I have said again and again, these theoretical materialists are by no means the worst. A materialist may use his intellect just to create concepts; they will in any case be very limited in scope and this form of materialism is not so very harmful. But when materialism is reinforced by other factors it can be very detrimental to the man's life as a whole—especially if the inmost, spiritual core of his being becomes dependent upon his material constitution. And nowadays, especially, how dependent men are upon matter! Theoretical materialism leads thoughts astray and is fatal to the ties that link souls together. But external life too is greatly influenced by the fact that so many people put materialism into actual practice. I mean by that, individuals who are so dependent upon their physical constitution that they can spend only a few winter months in their offices and in summer find it necessary to go off to the Riviera. The fact is they are so utterly dependent upon what is material that the soul has to subject itself to the needs which life dictates to it. That again is a different kind of materialist from a man who is materialistic only in his thoughts and ideas. Theoretical idealism may lead to the conviction that theoretical materialism is all wrong. But to cure practical materialists, to cure complete dependence upon the substances of the physical body, is possible only through genuine absorption in Spiritual Science.

If people could bring themselves to think—that is if their thoughts came not just from their intellect but were connected with reality—they would recognise from perfectly ordinary, everyday facts that there is a great difference between the various parts of man's being, for example between the hands and other parts of the body—the shoulders, let us say. A purely external investigation of man's physical body reveals differences in the action of the nerves. But it must be remembered that we can exercise a certain influence here. If the behaviour of the nerves were decisive for the soul we should be dependent upon material effects, for the action of the nerves is a material effect. But we are certainly not dependent in this respect, for influences of every kind can be brought to bear on the action of the nerves. The reason, quite simply, is that the etheric and astral bodies—the soul-and-spirit part of man—work in such very different ways. It is not enough to say that the physical body is filled with the etheric and astral bodies, for there is a difference that varies with the part of the body under consideration. We can easily convince ourselves that spiritual influences acting upon different parts of the body produce different effects. But we must be quite clear that what happens in life is under the sway of necessity. When there is something unusual about the direction taken by a current of air the physicist can apply his laws to discover the reason. But why is it that people do not reflect about the significance of the fact that they wash their hands far more often than any other part of the body? You will think it strange to introduce such matters; but it is these everyday phenomena that confirm the communications of a clairvoyant. It is also a fact that there are individuals who enjoy washing their hands as often as possible, and others who do not. Understanding of such an apparently trivial fact actually demands very advanced knowledge. To a clairvoyant the hands of a man are remarkably different in a particular respect from all his other bodily members. Luminous projections of the etheric body stream out from the fingers, sometimes glimmering faintly, sometimes flashing far into the surrounding space. The radiations from the fingers vary according to whether the man is happy or troubled and there is also a difference between the back of the hands and the palm. For anyone able to observe clairvoyantly, a hand, with its etheric and astral parts, is a most wonderful structure. But everything in our environment, material though it be, is a revelation, a manifestation, of the spirit. You should think of matter as being related to spirit as ice is to water; matter is formed out of spirit—call it ‘condensed spirit’ if you like. Contact with any material substance means contact with the spirit in that substance. All our contact with anything of a material nature is in fact—to the extent that it is purely material—maya. In reality it is spirit with which we come into contact.

If we observe life with sensitivity, we shall realise that washing the hands—especially if it is done frequently—brings a man into contact with the spirit in the water and has a considerable effect upon his whole disposition. Some individuals have a great fondness for washing their hands; directly the least speck of dirt gets on their hands they must be washed! Such characters either have, or will develop, a very definite relation to their surroundings, a relation not entirely the outcome of material influences. It is as if delicate forces in matter were working upon such individuals when there is this relationship between their hands and the element of water. Even in everyday life you will find that these people have an entirely healthy kind of sensitivity and more delicate powers of observation than others. They are at once aware, for instance, whether someone standing near them has a brutal or a kindly disposition. On the other hand, individuals who do not mind their hands being dirty are actually of a coarser disposition and erect a sort of barrier between themselves and their environment. This is a fact and can actually be observed as being characteristic of certain groups. Travel through certain countries and observe their inhabitants. In regions where people tend to wash the hands more frequently, you will find that relations between friend and friend are very different from what they are in regions where people wash their hands less often and erect a sort of barrier between one another.

These things have the validity of natural law, though the details may be affected by various circumstances. If we throw a stone into the air the line of projection is a parabola; but if the stone is caught by a gust of wind there will no longer be a pure parabola. This shows that all the relevant facts must be known if certain relationships are to be accurately observed. As to the hands, clairvoyant consciousness reveals that they are permeated by soul and spirit—to such an extent, indeed, that a definite relationship of the hands to the water is established. This holds good less in the case of the human face and less still in the case of the other parts of the body. This must not, however, be interpreted as an objection to washing or bathing but rather that we must keep our attention fixed on the relevant circumstances.

The point here is to show how very differently the soul and spirit are related to and express themselves in the various parts of the body. You are not likely to find that anyone does harm to his astral body by washing his hands too often, but the point must be considered in its widest range. The relationship between hands and water may exercise a healthy influence on the relation between man and his surroundings, that is to say, between his astral body and his environment; and for this reason things will not readily be carried to extremes. But those who think materialistically and allow their thoughts to be attached solely to matter will say that what is good for the hands must be good for the rest of the body. This would show that differences depending on delicate perceptions entirely escape notice; the consequence and it is abundantly in evidence—is that for certain purposes the same treatment is applied to the whole of the body. For instance, frequent cold baths and constant cold water frictions are recommended as a particularly effective treatment, even for children. Fortunately, because of obvious effects on the nervous system, doctors have already begun to realise that these treatments have been carried to absurd extremes. What is right for the hands because of their particular relation to the astral body can become an injurious experiment when applied to parts of the body having a different relation to the astral body. Washing the hands may bring about a healthy sensitivity to the environment; but an excessive use of cold baths and the like may cause an unhealthy hypersensitivity which, especially if such treatment is applied in childhood, lasts for the whole of life.

It is therefore all-important to know the limits within which methods may be beneficially applied; and this will be possible only if there is willingness to acknowledge that higher members of man's being are incorporated in his physical body. It will then be recognised that some of the inner organs used by the physical body as instruments are very differently related to the being of soul-and-spirit. It will be found, for instance, that the glandular system is preeminently the instrument of the etheric body, whereas everything associated with the nerves, for instance the brain, is intimately related to the astral body.

If these things are not kept in mind certain phenomena will always remain unintelligible. Materialists make the fundamental mistake of confining their observations to what in every case is only the instrument. For everything we experience is experienced in the realm of the soul; and our consciousness of these experiences is due to the fact that we have in the physical body an instrument which reflects them. Our physical body is only an instrument for reflecting what is going on in the life of soul. Anyone versed in Spiritual Science is clear about this. But the physical body can serve as an instrument in different ways. I need only point to one thing: the unique significance of the thyroid gland. As you know, the thyroid gland used to be considered a useless organ and in certain illnesses was often totally removed. In such cases the patients became imbeciles. The danger is substantially reduced if even a small part of the gland is left. This is evidence that the thyroid secretions are necessary for the development of certain aspects of the life of the soul. The strange thing is this: that if a secretion of a sheep's thyroid gland is administered to patients who have lost the gland, their condition is improved; if, later on, this treatment is discontinued, they lapse again into imbecility.

Materialists might find considerable support for their views in this fact. But the spiritual scientist knows how to judge it correctly. We are concerned here with an organ, the product of which can be introduced directly into our organism and be effective. But this can apply only to organs such as the thyroid gland, which are definitely related to the etheric body. Such an effect is not possible if the organ is related to the astral body. I have known poorly gifted individuals who have eaten plenty of sheep's brains but have not thereby become intelligent! This again shows that there is a great difference between the several organs, the magnitude of the difference being due to the fact that one group of organs has an inner connection with the etheric body and another with the astral body.

This reveals another important fact to spiritual observation. It seems very strange that a man may become feebleminded if his thyroid gland is removed altogether but recovers his wits if he is given an extract of the gland. It is particularly strange because there is no evidence that his brain has been detrimentally affected. Here is another case where ordinary observation should be led on to spiritual-scientific observation. Spiritual Science shows that a man does not become an imbecile because his thyroid gland is removed. ‘But’, you will say, ‘facts show that he does!’ In reality, however, men do not become imbeciles because they cannot think, but because they are deprived of the possibility of using an instrument through which they become attentive to their environment. They are not imbeciles because they lack reasoning power but because they have no contact with their environment, and this insensibility is not the same as loss of reason. It does not necessarily follow that a man has lost his reason if he fails to exercise it because of lack of attentiveness to the environment. If you do not think about a thing you cannot express yourself about it; if you want to establish relationship with anything you must think about it. When the thyroid gland is removed a man's living interest in things is undermined—to such an extent indeed that he ceases to use his reasoning power.

Here you can see the subtle difference between using parts of the brain which are an instrument for the reasoning mind and using an instrument such as the thyroid gland. Light can thus be thrown on the ways in which the physical body is an instrument; and if we observe attentively we shall also be able to differentiate accurately between the several parts of man's constitution.

The ‘I’ is related to the surrounding world in the most varied ways. We shall be concerned here with certain facts which I have described elsewhere, showing that a man may endeavour to penetrate with his ‘I’ into his inner self, seeking to become aware of his own essential being; or he may turn to the external world, seeking to establish a connection with that world. We become conscious of the ‘I’ in a certain sense when we turn our attention inwards, when we reflect upon what life gives us or has in store for us. We can also become aware of the ‘I’ when, for example, we are brought into contact with the world outside by knocking against a stone, or perhaps when we cannot settle an account! We then become aware that our ‘I’ is unable to master the circumstances of external life. In short, we can become aware of our ‘I’ both in our inner life and when we are confronting circumstances of the external world. And we become aware of our ‘I’ in a very special way when the magical relationship we call sympathy or compassion is established with human beings or certain circumstances in our environment. There is clear evidence here of a magical process operating from soul to soul, from spirit to spirit. For we actually feel within ourselves something that is going on in the world outside, is being thought and felt there: we are experiencing in ourselves something that is of the nature of soul-and-spirit in the external world. We pass into the inner realm of our being in actual fact, for sympathy or compassion is an intimate experience in the life of soul. If our ‘I’ is not really equal to these experiences and needs to be inwardly strengthened, this comes to expression in the life of soul as sorrow, and physically as tears. Sorrow is an experience of the soul which gives the ‘I’ in the face of some external circumstance a feeling of greater strength than if it had remained indifferent. Sorrow always denotes an inner enhancement of the activity of the ‘I’. Sorrow enhances the content, the intensity, of the ‘I’ and tears are an expression of the fact that the ‘I’ is at a particular moment striving to experience more than would have been possible had it remained indifferent.

We cannot but wonder at the poetic imagination that was already apparent in the young Goethe and was deeply connected with cosmic mysteries. I am referring here to the passage where Faust's weakness leads him to the point where he desires the physical extinction of his ‘I’, and he feels driven to suicide. Then the Easter bells ring out and at the sound of them the ‘I’ gathers strength; tears—the sign of sorrow in Faust's soul—burst forth and he cries: ‘Tears start; earth holds me once more!’ This indicates that what belongs to the earth has been strengthened; tears well up into the eyes, giving expression to the increased intensity of the ‘I’.

Mirth and laughter too are connected with the strength or weakness of the ‘I’ in its relationship to the world outside. Mirth or laughter indicates that our ‘I’ feels more confident of its understanding and grasp of things and events. In laughter, our ‘I’ gathers such intensity that it pours itself out over the environment. This outpouring comes to expression in mirth, in the way we show amusement. Connected with this is the fact that—for the healthy-minded at all events—the cause of genuine sorrow must be a reality. Any reality in the external world which makes us feel as we participate in it that the inner activity of our ‘I’ must be enhanced, may induce a mood of sorrow. But if sorrow is associated with something unreal, for example, with some artificial representation given merely for the sake of arousing sadness, a man whose thinking is sound will require something more. He feels that what moves him to sorrow should arouse in him the surmise that what has caused the sorrow can be overcome.—I am merely hinting at this today and will deal with it more fully on another occasion.—A healthy soul feels the urge to rise to a higher level, to conduct itself worthily in the face of misery. Only a rather unhealthy soul will be satisfied with a mere representation of misery—unless in the representation there is implicit some prospect of victory. Thus we demand that in a drama there should be a prospect of victory for the victim of misery. No aesthetic can arbitrarily decree that only the trivial things in life shall be represented. But it will become evident that a man who follows his own healthy nature will not find that the demands of his ‘I’ are satisfied by an imitation of misery. The whole weight of reality is needed before the ‘I’ is roused to compassion.

And now think of this.—Is it not exactly the opposite as regards the comic? To laugh at real folly is in a certain respect inhuman. We cannot laugh at folly when it confronts us as reality. On the other hand it is thoroughly healthy to laugh at the representation of folly; and it was a very sound ‘folk-therapy’ to present to the people in comedy and burlesque how the folly of human action leads of itself to absurdity. When our ‘I’ is able in mirth or laughter to rise above what is recognised as folly in a given situation, it is strengthened by the spectacle of an artistic representation of folly, and there is no healthier laughter than this. On the other hand it is inhuman to laugh at a predicament in which a fellow human being finds himself, or at a real simpleton. Therefore different laws hold good if representation of these things is to have its proper effect.

If our ‘I’ is to be strengthened in an act of compassion, what moves us must confront us as reality. On the other hand, as healthy-minded men we demand, when misery is portrayed before us, that we should be able to feel the possibility of victory over it. In the dying hero of a tragedy, where death is enacted before our eyes, we feel that the victory of the spirit over the body is symbolised in this death. The very opposite is the case when the ‘I’ is brought into relation with the outside world. We feel then that we cannot fitly be moved to mirth or laughter when faced with reality, but rather that laughter is proper in cases that are removed from reality. We can certainly laugh when a man meets with a misfortune which does him no particular harm and is not closely related to life. But the more closely our experiences are related to reality, the less we laugh if we truly understand them.

From this it is clear that our ‘I’ is related to reality in different ways but the very variety of the facts testifies to the existence of a relationship even with what is most sublime. You have heard in many lectures that in ancient Initiation there were two paths leading into the spiritual world: the one path was a descent into the inmost being of man, into the Microcosm; the other path led out into the Macrocosm. Now everything that comes to expression in great things is revealed also in the smallest. In ordinary life a man's descent into his inner being finds expression in sorrow, whereas the manner of his life in the external world shows itself in his ability to grasp the connection between processes that are apparently unconnected. Herein the supremacy of the ‘I’ is made manifest. And you have heard that if the ‘I’ is not to lose itself, it must be guided by an Initiation leading into the outer world; otherwise it will lose its bearings and may be led into what can only seem to be a void.

The smallest is connected with the greatest. Hence in Spiritual Science, where our thoughts are so often lifted to the highest spheres, we also concern ourselves with the most everyday matters. In the next lecture we shall turn once more to the consideration of higher things, making use of what we have been considering to-day.