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The Rudolf Steiner Archive

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Colour and the Human Races
GA 349

I. The Nature of Color

21 February 1923, Dornach

In order, gentlemen that the last question may be thoroughly answered. I will, as far as possible, say something about colors. One cannot really understand colors if one does not understand the human eye, for man perceives colors entirely through the eye.

Picture to yourselves, for instance, a blind person. A blind person feels differently in a room that is lighted and in a room that is dark. Though it is so weak a matter that he does not perceive it, yet it has a great significance for him. Even a blind person could not live perpetually in a cellar, he would need the light. And there is a difference if one brings a blind man into a bright room with yellow windows, or into a dark room, or into a fairly light room which has blue windows. That acts quite differently on his life. Yellow color and blue color influence life quite differently. But these are things which one learns to understand only when one has grasped how the eye is affected by color.

Now from what I have hitherto put before you, you will perhaps have realized that two things are most important in man. The first is the blood, for if man were not to have blood he would have to die at once. He would not be able to renew his life every moment and life must be every moment renewed. So if you think away the blood from the body, man is a dead object.

Now think away the nerves too: man would no doubt look just the same, but he would have no consciousness; he could form no ideas, could will nothing, would not be able to move.

We must therefore say to ourselves: For man to be a conscious human being he needs nerves. For man to be able to live at all he needs blood. Thus blood is the organ of life, the nerves are the organ of consciousness.

But every organ has nerves and has blood. The human eye is in fact really like a complete human being and has nerves and blood. Imagine that here [a drawing was made] the eye protrudes, and in the eye little blood-arteries, many blood-arteries spread out. And many nerves too spread out. You see, what you have in the hand, that is, nerves and blood, you have also in the head.

Now think: the external world which is illumined works upon the eye. By day at any rate the world in which you go about is illumined, but it is difficult to form an idea of this wholly-lighted outer world. You get a true idea when you imagine the half-lighted world in the morning and evening, when you see the red of dawn and evening. Dawn and the sunset glow are particularly instructive.

For what is actually there in the glow of dawn and evening? Picture to yourselves the sunrise. The sun comes up, but it cannot shine on you direct as yet. The sun comes when the earth is like this—I am now drawing the apparent path, but that does not matter (in reality the earth moves and the sun stands still, but how we see this makes no difference). The sun sends its rays here [drawing] and then here. So if first you stand there, you do not see the sun at dawn, you see the litÖ¾up clouds. These are the clouds and the light falls actually on them. What is that actually? This is very instructive. Because the sun has not quite risen, it is still dark around you and there in the distance are the clouds lit up by the sun. Can one understand that?

If you stand there you are seeing the illumined clouds through the darkness that is around you. You see light through darkness. So that we can say it is the same thing at dawn and sunset—one sees light through darkness. And light seen through darkness—as you can see in the morning and evening glow—looks red. Light seen through darkness looks red.

Now I will say something different. Imagine that dawn has gone by and it is daytime. You see freely up into the air, as it is today. What do you see? You see the so-called blue sky. To be sure, it is not there, but you see it all the same. That certainly does not continue into all infinity, but you see the blue sky as if it were surrounding the earth like a blue shell.

Why is that? Now you have only to think of how it is out there in distant universal space. It is in fact dark. For universal space is dark. The sun shines only on the earth and because there is air round the earth the sunbeams are caught and make it light here, especially when they shine through watery air. But out there in universal space it is absolutely black darkness. So that if one stands here by day one looks into darkness, and one should actually see darkness. But one does not see it black, but blue, because all round there is light from the sun. The air and the moisture in the air are illumined.

So you see quite clearly darkness through the light. You look through the light, through the illumined air into darkness. And therefore we can say: Darkness through light is blue.

There you have the two principles of the color-theory which you can simply get from observation of the surroundings. If you thoroughly understand the red of dawn and evening glow you say to yourself: Light seen through darkness or obscurity is red. When by day you look out into the black heavens, you say to yourself: Darkness or obscurity seen through light—since it is light around you—is blue.

You see, men have always had this quite natural view until they became “clever.” This perception of light seen through darkness being red, and darkness through light being blue, was possessed by ancient peoples over in Asia when they still had the knowledge which I have lately described to you. The ancient Greeks still had this concept, and it lasted through the whole Middle Ages until the 14th. 15th, 16th, 17th centuries when people became clever. And as they became clever, they began not to look at nature but to think out all sorts of artificial sciences.

One of those who devised a particularly artificial science about color was the Englishman Newton. Out of cleverness—you know how I am now using the word, namely quite in earnest—out of special cleverness Newton said something like this: Let us look at the rainbow—for when one is clever one does not look at something happening naturally every day: dawn, sunset, one looks at the specially unusual and rare, something to be understood only when one has gone further. However. Newton said: Let us look at the rainbow. In the rainbow one sees seven colors, namely, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. One sees them next to each other in the rainbow:


When you look at a rainbow you can distinguish these seven colors quite plainly.

Now Newton made an artificial rainbow by darkening the room, covering the window with black paper, and in the paper he made a tiny hole. That gave him a very small streak of light.

Then he put in this streak of light something that one calls a prism. It is a glass that looks like this [drawing], a sort of three-cornered glass, and behind this he set up a screen. So he then had the window with the hole, this tiny beam of light, the prism and behind it the screen. Then the rainbow appeared with the red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet colors. What did Newton then say?

Newton said to himself: The white light comes in; with the prism I get the seven colors of the rainbow. Therefore they are already contained in the white light and I only need to draw them out.

You see, that is a very simple explanation. One explains something by saying: It is already there and I draw it out.

In reality he ought to have said: Since I set up a prism—that is. a glass with a cornered surface, not a regular glass plate—when I look through it like this, there is light made red through darkness, and on the other side darkness made blue through light—the blue color appears. And in between lie in fact gradations. That is what he ought to have told himself.

But at that time the aim in the world was to explain everything by seeking to find everything already inside that from which one was really to explain it. That is the simplest method, is it not? If, for example, one is to describe how the human being arises, then one says: Oh well, he is already in the ovum of the mother, he only develops out of it. That is a fine explanation!

We don't find things as easy as that, as you have seen. We have to take the whole universe to our aid, which first forms the egg in the mother. But natural science is concerned with throwing everything inside, which is the simplest possible way. Newton said that the sun already contained all the colors and we had only to draw them out.

But that is not it at all. If the sun is to produce red at dawn, it must first shine on the clouds and we must see the red through darkness; and if the sky is to appear blue, that is not at all through the sun. The sun does not shine into the heavens: it is all black there, dark, and we see the blue through the illumined air of the earth. We see darkness through light, and that is blue.

The point is to make a proper physics where it could then be seen how in the prism on the one side light is seen through darkness and on the other darkness through light. But that is too tiresome for people. They find it best to say that everything is within light and one only draws it out. Then one can say too that once there was a giant egg in the world, the whole world was inside, and we draw everything out of it.

That is what Newton did with the colors. But in reality one can always see the secret of the colors if one understands in the right way the morning and evening glow and the blue of the heavens.

Now we must consider further the whole matter in relation to our eye and to the whole of human life altogether. You see, you all know that there is a being which is especially excited through red—that is, where light works through darkness—and that is the bull. The bull is well known to be frightfully enraged by red. That you know.

And so man too has a little of the bull-nature. He is not of course directly excited through red, but if man lived continually in a red light, you would at once perceive that he gets a little stimulation from it. He gets a little bull-like. I have even known poets who could not write poetry if they were in their ordinary frame of mind, so then they always went to a room where they put a red lampshade over the light. They were then stimulated and were able to write poetry. The bull becomes savage: man by exposing himself to the red becomes poetic! The stimulation to poetry is only a matter of whether it comes from inside or from outside. This is one side of the case.

On the other hand you will also be aware that when people who understand such things want to be thoroughly meek and humble, they use blue, or black—deep black. That is so beautiful to see in Catholicism: when Advent comes and people are supposed to become humble, the Church is made blue; above all the vestments are blue. People get quietened, humble; they feel themselves inwardly connected with the subdued mood—especially if a man has previously exhausted his fury, like a bull, as for instance at Shrove Tuesday's carnival. Then one has the proper time of fasting afterwards, not only dark raiment, black raiment. Then men become tamed down after their violence is over. Only, where one has two carnivals, two carnival Sundays, one should let the time of fasting be twice as long! I do not know if that is done.

But you see from this that it has quite a different effect on man whether he sees light through dark that is red, or darkness through light, that is blue.

Now consider the eye. Within it you have nerves and blood. When the eye looks at red, let us say at the dawn or at something red, what does it experience? You see, when the eye looks at red then these quite fine little blood-arteries become permeated by the red light, and this light has the peculiarity of always destroying the blood a little. It therefore destroys the nerve at the same time, for the nerve can live only when it is permeated by blood. So that when the eye confronts red, when red comes into the eye, then the blood in the eye is always somewhat destroyed and the nerve with it.

When the bull is faced with red it simply feels: Good gracious—all the blood in my head is destroyed! I must defend myself!—Then it becomes savage because it will not let its blood be destroyed.

Well, but this is very good—not only in the bull, but in man and in other animals. For if we look at red and our blood becomes somewhat destroyed, then on the other hand our whole body works to bring oxygen into the eye so that the blood can be re-established.

Just think what a wonderful process takes place there. When light is seen through darkness—that is, red—then the blood is destroyed, oxygen is absorbed from the body and the eye vitalized through the oxygen. And now we know through the renewal of life in our eye: There is red outside. But in order that we may perceive this red, the blood and the nerve in the eye must be a little destroyed. We must send life, that is, oxygen, into the eye. And by our own vitalizing of the eye, by this waking up of the eye we notice: there is red outside.

Now you see, man's health too actually depends on his perceiving rightly the reddened light, on his always being able to take in reddened light properly. For the oxygen which is drawn out of the body vitalizes then the whole body and man gets a healthy color in the face. He can really reanimate himself.

This refers not only to a person who is healthy and able to see, it applies as well to one whose eyes are not healthy and who does not see: When the light works through the bright color then he is vitalized in the head, and this vitalizing acts again on the whole body and gives him a healthy color. So when we live in the light and can take in the light properly we get a healthy color.

It is very important tor people not to be brought up in dark places where they can become lifeless and submissive. People should be brought up in light, bright places with yellowish-reddish light, where they also properly assimilate the oxygen in them through the light.

But you see from this that everything connected with the element of red is actually connected with the development of man's blood. When we look at red the nerve is actually destroyed.

Now just think: We see darkness through light, that is, blue. Darkness does not destroy our blood, it leaves our blood unharmed. The nerve too is undestroyed since our blood is in order. The result is for man to feel himself thoroughly well inwardly. Since blood and nerve are not attacked by blue, man feels thoroughly well inside.

And there is really something subtly refined in creating submissive meekness. When, let us say, the priests there above at the altar are in their blue or their black vestments, and the people sit below and gaze at them, the blood-arteries and nerves in the eye are not destroyed and naturally the people feel very well. It is actually directed to the feeling of well-being of the people.

Do not imagine that that is not known! For they still have their ancient science. The more modern science has only arisen with the men of the Enlightenment, in such men as, for instance. Newton.

Thus we can say: Blue is what sends through man a feeling of well-being, when he says to himself (it is all unconscious, but he says it inwardly): There alone I can live—in the blue. There man feels inwardly himself; in red, on the other hand, he feels as if something were to penetrate into him. One can say that with blue the nerve remains undestroyed and the body sends the feeling of well-being into the eye and hence into the whole body.

That is the difference between the color blue and the color red. And yellow is only a gradation of red, and green is a gradation of blue. So that one can say: according to whether nerve or blood is active, the more sensitive is man to red or to blue.

Now you see, one can apply that to substances. If I want to look for a red for painting, to produce a red color which contains the substances that stimulate man to develop oxygen inwardly, then I gradually arrive at the fact that to get red color for painting I must test the substances of the outer world to find how much carbon they contain. If I combine carbon in the right way with other substances, I discover the secret of making a red for my painting.

If I use plants for getting colors for paints then above all it is a matter of so organizing my processes, diminishing, consuming, and so on, that I obtain the carbon in the paint in the right way. If I have the carbon in it in the right way, then I get the bright, the reddish color.

If on the other hand I have substances which contain much oxygen—not carbon but oxygen—then I obtain the darker colors, such as blue. When I know the living element in the plant then I can really create my colors. Imagine that I take a sunflower: that is quite yellow, a bright color. Yellow is near to red, that is, light seen through darkness. If I now treat the sunflower in such a way as somehow to gel into my paint-color the right process that lies in the flower, then I have a good yellow. Even the outer light cannot have much against it, because the blossom of the sunflower has already taken from the sun the secret of creating yellow. If I therefore get the same process into my artist's color as there is in the blossom, then if I get it thick enough, I can use it normally as paint.

But let me take another plant, the chicory, for instance, the blue flower that grows on the wayside—it grows here too. If I have this blue plant and want to prepare a paint from the flower, I cannot do it, I get nothing from it. On the other hand, if I treat the root in the right way, there is a process in it which actually makes the blossom blue.

When the blossom is yellow then something goes on in the blossom itself which makes yellow; when the blossom is blue, however, the process lies in the root and it only presses upwards towards the flower. So if I want to produce a blue paint from the indigo-plant, where I get a darker blue, or from the chicory, this blue flower, I must use the root. I must treat it chemically till it yields me the blue color.

In this way, through real study, I can find out how to obtain paints from the plant. I cannot do so in Newton's way; he simply says that everything is in the sunlight and one has only to draw it out. (One can apply that at most to one's purse; what I spend for a day I must have in the purse in the morning.) That is how the quite clever people picture it, like a sack in which everything is lying. That, however, is not the case.

We must know, for instance, how the yellow is in the sunflower or in the dandelion. We must know how the blue is in chicory. The processes which make the chicory or the indigo׳ plant blue lie in the root, whereas the processes that make the sunflower or the dandelion yellow lie in the flower.

And so I must imitate chemically, in a chemistry become living, the flower-process of the plant and get the bright, light color. I must imitate the root process of the plant and there obtain the dark color.

You see, what I have related here is plain to the real human understanding; whereas as a matter of fact this business (in the rainbow) with the red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet, is a rarity.

Now when Goethe lived the affair had got to the point where people generally believed in what Newton had taught, namely, the sun is the great sack in which lie the so-called seven colors. One need only tempt them out, then they come to light. Everyone believed that; it was taught and in fact is still taught today.

Goethe's nature was not one to believe everything immediately. He wanted to convince himself a little about things that were taught everywhere. People generally say that they do not believe anything on authority. But when it comes to the point of crediting what is taught from the professorial chair, then people are today frightfully credulous, they believe everything that is taught. Goethe did not want to believe everything straightaway, so he borrowed from the university in Jena the apparatus, the prisms and so on which provide the proof. He thought: Now I will do exactly what the professors do in order to see how it actually is.

Well, Goethe did not get down to it immediately and had the apparatus rather a long time without doing anything. He just did something else. So the time became too long for the Hofrat Büttner who needed the apparatus and wanted to have it fetched back. Goethe said: Now I must do the thing quickly—and at least, as he was already packing up, looked through a prism. He said to himself: The rainbow must look beautiful on the white wall if I look through there; instead of white, red, yellow, green and so on must appear. He therefore peered through, anticipating with delight that he would now see the white wall in these beautiful colors,—but he saw nothing: white as before, simply white. Naturally he was extremely surprised and asked himself what was behind it. And his whole theory of color arose out of this.

Goethe said: One must now control the whole affair again. The ancients have said light seen through darkness = red, darkness through light = blue. If I gradate the red somewhat it becomes yellow. If I make the blue go up to red, then it becomes green on the one side and violet on the other. These are gradations. And he then worked out his color theory and in fact better than it existed in the Middle Ages.

Now today we have a physicist's color-theory with the sack from which the seven colors come, which is taught everywhere. And we have a Goethean color-theory which understands the blue of the heavens rightly, understands rightly the morning and evening glow as I have been explaining to you.

But there is a certain difference between the Newtonian and the Goethean theory. For the most part other people do not notice it, for other people look on the one hand to the physicists: there the Newtonian theory of color is taught which stands in the books everywhere. One can very clearly picture to oneself what appears there in the rainbow as red, orange, yellow, green and so on. Well, but there is no prism there! However, one does not reflect further. The Newtonians certainly know, but they do not admit, that when one looks through the rainbow on the one side, then one sees darkness through the sun-illumined rainbow; sees on the other side the blue. But then one also sees in front the surface where one sees light through darkness, and on the other side the red. One must explain everything therefore by the simple principle: light through darkness is red; darkness through light is blue.

But as I have said, people on the one hand see everything as the logicians explain it to them: on the other hand they look at pictures where the colors are used. Well, they do not ask further about the red and the yellow and so on; they do not bring the two things together.

But the painter must bring them together: one who wants to paint must connect them. He must not merely know: There is a sack and the colors are within it—for he has not got the sack anywhere. He must obtain the right thing from the living plant, or living substances, so that he can mix his colors in the right way.

So this is the position today: painters really reflect (—there even are painters who reflect, who do not simply buy their colors): but those painters who reflect upon how they are to obtain these colors and how they should use them, they say: Yes, with the Goethean color-theory one can do something; that tells us something. With the Newtonian color-theory, the theory of the physicists, we painters can do nothing.

The public does not bring painting and the physicists' theory of color together, but the painter does! He therefore likes the Goethean color-theory. He says to himself: Goodness! We don't bother about the physicists: they say something in their own field. They may do what they like; we keep to the Goethean color-theory. The painters look on themselves as artists and not as having to encroach on the teaching of the physicists. That is in fact uncomfortable, enmities arise, and so on.

But that is how things stand today between what is in the books about color and what is true. With Goethe it was simply the defense of truth which impelled him to oppose the Newtonians and the whole modern physics. And we cannot really understand nature without coming to Goethe's color-theory.

Hence it is quite natural that in a Goetheanum Goethe's theory of color should also be vindicated. But then if one does not remain in some religious or moral sphere but also intervenes in the smallest single part of Physics, then one has the physicists' whole pack of hounds upon one.

So, you see, the defense of truth is extraordinarily difficult in modern times. But you should just know in what a complicated way the physicists explain the blue of the sky. Naturally, if I start from a false principle and want to explain the simple thing that the blackness of universal space appears blue through light, then I must make a frightfully complicated explanation of it. And then the red of dawn and sunset! These chapters mostly begin like this; the blue sky—one cannot actually explain that properly today, one could imagine this or that.—Yes, with all that the physicists have, their little hole which so much amused Goethe—the little hole through which they let the light come into the room, in order with the darkness to investigate the light—with all this they cannot explain the simplest facts. And so it comes to the point that color is no longer understood at all.

If one understands, however, that the destruction of the blood calls forth the vitalizing process—for when I have destroyed my blood then I call up all the oxygen in me and renew myself, bring about health—then one also understands the healthy rosy color in man.

If I have darkness round me or continual blueness, well, then I shall not continually reanimate myself, or else I should create too much life in me. And so on the one hand one can understand the healthy rosy countenance from the intake of' oxygen, when one is thoroughly exposed to the light, and one can understand paleness from the perpetual intake of carbonic acid. Carbonic acid, the counterpart of oxygen, wants to go into my head. That makes me quite pale.

Today, for instance in Germany, the children are almost all pale. But one must understand that that comes from too much carbonic acid. And if man develops too much carbonic acid—carbonic acid consists of a combination of carbon and oxygen—then he uses the carbon which he has in him too much for forming carbonic acid. Thus in such a pale child you have all the carbon in him continuously changed into carbonic acid. So he becomes pale. What must I do? I must administer something to him through which this eternal development of carbonic acid inside him is hindered, through which the carbon is held back. I can do that if I give him some carbonate of lime.

In this way the functions are again stimulated, as I have told you from quite a different standpoint, and man keeps the carbon that he needs, does not continually change it into carbonic acid. And since carbonic acid consists of carbon and oxygen, the oxygen comes up into the head and animates the head processes, the life processes. But when the oxygen is given up to the carbonic acid, the life processes are suppressed.

If I therefore bring a pale person into a region where he has a good deal of light, he becomes stimulated not to give up his carbon continually to carbonic acid, because the light sucks the oxygen up into the head. Then he will get a healthy color again. In the same way I can stimulate that through the carbonate of lime, inasmuch as I keep back the oxygen and the person has it at his disposal.

So everything must be interconnected. One must be able to understand health and illness from the theory of color. One can do that only from Goethe's theory, for that rests simply on nature in a natural manner. It can never be done from Newton's color-theory which is merely devised, does not rest on nature at all, and actually cannot explain the simplest phenomena, the red at dawn and sunset and the blue sky.

Now, gentlemen, may I still say something else to you. Think of the old pastoral peoples who drove out their flocks and herds and slept in the open air. During their sleep they were not exposed to the blue sky but to the dark sky. And up there upon it [drawing] are the unnumbered shining stars. Now picture the dark sky with these countless shining stars and there below the sleeping men. From the heavens there streams out a calming force, the inner feeling of well-being in sleep. The whole human being is permeated by the darkness, so that he becomes inwardly quiet. Sleep proceeds from the darkness, but nevertheless these stars shine down. And wherever a star-beam shines the human being becomes inwardly a little stirred up. An oxygen ray goes out from the body. Pure oxygen rays go to meet the rays from the stars and the man becomes entirely permeated inwardly by the oxygen rays: he becomes inwardly an oxygen reflection of the whole starry heavens.

Thus the ancient shepherd folk took into their quietened bodies the whole star heavens in pictures, pictures which the course of the oxygen engraved into them. Then they woke up and they had the dream of these pictures. From this they had their star knowledge, their wonderful knowledge of the stars.

Their dream was not merely that Aries, the Ram, had so-and-so-many stars, but they really saw the animal, the Ram, the Bull, and so on, and felt the whole starry heavens in themselves in pictures. That is what has remained to us from the ancient shepherd folk as a poetic wisdom which sometimes has extraordinarily much that can still be instructive today.

One can understand it when one knows that the human being lets an oxygen ray radiate to each beam of light from the stars, that he becomes wholly sky, an inner oxygen sky.

Man's inner life is as we know an astral body, for during sleep he experiences the whole heavens. It would go badly with us if we were not descended from these ancient pastoral peoples. All men in fact are descended from ancient shepherd folk. We still have, purely through heredity, the knowledge of an inner star-heaven. We still unfold that, although not so well as the ancients. In sleep, when we lie in bed, we have still a sort of recollection of how once the shepherd of old lay in the fields and drew the oxygen into him. We are no longer shepherds and herdsmen but something is still given to us, we still receive something, only we cannot express it so beautifully as it has already become pale and dim. But the whole of mankind today is indeed interconnected, all belong to each other,—and if one would know what man still bears in him today, one must go back to ancient times. Everywhere, all men on earth have proceeded from this shepherd-stage and have actually inherited in their bodies what could descend from these pastoral peoples.