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The Rudolf Steiner Archive

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World History in the Light of Anthroposophy
and as a Foundation for Knowledge of the Human Spirit
GA 233

Lecture VII

30 December 1923, Dornach

The last great incision into the historical evolution of mankind is the one that took place—we have often spoken of it—in the first third of the 15th century, and that marks the transition from the evolution more particularly of the Intellectual or Mind-Soul to that of the Consciousness or Spiritual Soul. For we live in an age when the evolution of the Spiritual Soul is taking place, and it is an age that is entirely bereft of true insight into the connections of the human being with the deeper impulses and forces of Nature, or rather of the Spirit that is in Nature. To-day, when we speak of man and his constitution as physical man, we speak, for instance, of the chemical substances, enumerating them under the heading of what the chemist calls the elements. But it is of about as much value for a man to know that something he eats contains carbon and nitrogen as it is for a watch-mechanic to know that the watch he has in his hand consists of glass and, shall we say, silver and some other substances. All this kind of knowledge that traces back the real substance of man's nature to these material abstractions—hydrogen, oxygen and the like—affords no true knowledge of the human being. The mechanism of the watch has to be understood by seeing in it a connected system of forces; and similarly, if we would understand the nature and being of man, we must recognise how the various impulses that are to be found working in all the kingdoms of Nature work in the human being;—for there they work differently than in the other kingdoms of Nature. In modern times however there is no longer any true vision of the connection of man with the Universe. Until the 14th or 15th century this vision and knowledge persisted; though degenerate, it was still present in greater or less degree, and instinctively gifted natures were able still to make use of it. But later on, save for a few men like Paracelsus, Jacob Boehme and others, the true insight into man's connection with the Universe, little by little, died completely away.

What does the newer Natural Science, that has gradually grown up since the 15th century, know of the relation, let us say, of the plant world or of the animal world to the human being? The scientist examines the plants in their chemical constitution and tries by some means or other to study these same chemical constituents of the plant as they appear in man. Finally perhaps he tries to form an idea—generally he fails!—of the influence of the substances on the healthy and on the diseased human being. All this investigation however results in a darkening of knowledge. The important thing to-day, if we are really desirous of going forward in our knowledge of man on the foundation of historical insight, is that we should learn to know again what is the real relation of the human being to the Nature that he finds around him.

Until the time of the last great revolution in men's consciousness that took place in the 15th century, there was still a clear perception of the great difference that exists in the metals, as between those that are found in the human being and those that are found in Nature. When we set out to consider the various substances in man's physical nature, certain metals show themselves in greater or less degree. For example, iron is present in the human organism, in combination with various other substances; magnesium is also present, and we could name many others. Before the 15th century men were keenly alive to the difference between such metals as these we have mentioned, that are found when we examine the human organism, and such metals as are present in external Nature but are not at any rate quickly apparent in the human organism. The men of these earlier times said: Man is a microcosm; whatever is present in the world outside him, in the macrocosm, is present in some form or other in him. And this was for them no mere general principle in the abstract: had they gone but a little way in initiation knowledge, it followed inevitably from what they knew of the nature of man and of the nature of the Universe. They knew that we can only come to a true understanding of man when we bring together in one the whole of Nature, with all her impulses, with all the substances that she contains. Then we have a picture, an imagination of the being of man. And a disturbing element enters the picture when we meet with something outside in Nature that cannot be found in man.

So thought a student of Nature of the 9th, 10th or 11th century. In those times, however, something else was known, namely, that that which man receives by way of physical nourishment is only a part, perhaps not even the most important part, of all that serves to maintain his physical organism, or rather his whole human organism throughout.

Now, to go beyond physical nourishment and include also breathing presents no difficulty to the man of the present day; for breathing too is a form of assimilation. But it would not occur to him to go any farther. The earlier student of Nature went farther. It was clear to him that when man uses his eye to perceive things, he does not merely see with the eye, but during the process of perception he receives through the eye in infinitely minute quantities something of the substance of the World-All. And not through the eye alone, but through the ear and through other portions of the organism. And the medieval student of Nature was fully aware of the very great importance of those substances which occur in a slight measure only in the human organism, such as, for example, lead, and which man receives in infinitely minute quantities that may be found where we little suspect their presence.

Lead is a metal that cannot immediately be demonstrated as occurring in man. But lead is, as a matter of fact, distributed throughout the entire physical Cosmos in a state of very fine dilution, and the human being takes up lead from the Cosmos by means of processes that are many times more delicate than the process of breathing. The human being is perpetually excreting substances, throwing them off from the periphery. You not only cut your nails, you continually throw off substances from your skin. But whilst substance is thus given off, other substance is taken up and received into the organism.

This was the kind of thought in which a student of Nature lived, who belonged to medieval times,—to the 9th, 10th, 11th or 12th century. He had no balances, he had none of the coarser measuring instruments with which to determine how the substances and forces worked; for him it was a matter of entering deeply into the inner qualities of Nature, of understanding her inner impulses and her connection with the human being. And men were able in this way to know many things that they will one day begin to know again. For, if truth be told, nothing is known to-day of the real nature of the human being.

You know how when we investigate the constitution of man, we sum it up in the following way,—in order to have some kind of classification and plan: man is composed of physical body, etheric body, astral body and ego, or ego-organisation. Well and good. In the first instance these terms are mere words: but it is good to begin with them, each person can form from them some small idea of the truth. But if we want to make use of this classification in practical life, especially if we want to use it in medicine—admittedly a highly important ‘practice’ in life, and one that depends at every step on our knowledge of the human being,—then we cannot possibly remain at the words, we must enter into that which is behind the words and gives them their content. We ask first: what about the physical body? How can we gain a true idea of it? (You will see presently why I am developing this line of thought). Take any object on the Earth, outside the human being; let us say, for instance, a stone. A stone falls to the ground. We say, the stone is heavy, it is attracted by the Earth, it has weight. We discover other forces working in the stone. If it is formed into a crystal, then form-building forces work in it. These too are related to the earthly forces. In short, when we look around in the world, we find all about us substances that are subject to the earthly nature.

Keep that clearly in mind: we have, to begin with, substances that are subject to the earthly nature.

Someone whose thoughts on these things are not clear, will perhaps come and show you a piece of coal, a piece of black coal. What is it in reality? In the neighbourhood of the Earth, it is coal; but the moment you were to take it but a short distance—comparatively speaking—away from the Earth, it would cease to be coal. What makes it coal is nothing but the forces of the Earth. Thus you can say: Here is the Earth, and the forces of the Earth are within it; but the forces of the Earth are also in every single object that I find here on the Earth. And the physical body of man, although of course it is marvellously combined and held together, is nevertheless essentially such an object, standing in subjection to these physical forces of the Earth, the forces that come from the centre of the Earth. The physical body of the human being can therefore be described as that which is subject to the forces coming from the centre of the Earth.

Now there are other forces on the Earth besides. These other forces come from the whole environment of the Earth, from the far circumference. Imagine for a moment that you are going out and out, away from the Earth into unmeasured distances. From these unmeasured distances forces work upon the Earth, working inwards to it from every direction. Yes, it is a fact, such forces do exist, coming from all directions of the Universe and working in everywhere towards the centre of the Earth. It is possible to gain quite a clear and concrete picture of them in the following way.

You will remember that the most important substance that forms the basis everywhere of the organism, whether it be of plant, animal or man, is albumen. And albumen also forms the basis for the germ of a new plant, animal or human organism. From a fructified germ cell proceeds that which evolves into an organism, and the substance of the germ is albumen. In these days, instead of pursuing true science, men build up all kinds of imaginations, and they make a picture to themselves of this albumen as composed of substances in intricate chemical combination. It is composed, so they say, of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, sulphur, and a trace too of phosphorus, all in complicate combination. And so the atomist comes to see in albumen the example par excellence of chemical combination. The atoms and molecules have to be thought of as arranged in a most complicated manner. And in the mother-animal or mother-plant arises this complicated albumen-molecule, or whatever you choose to call it; it develops further and the new animal comes to birth from it, arising, that is, purely through inheritance.

From the spiritual point of view, all this is sheer nonsense. The truth is that the albumen of the mother animal is not a complicated chemical combination at all, it is all broken up, destroyed and reduced to chaos. The albumen that is otherwise contained in the body is still to some extent organised, but albumen that forms the basis for propagation is distinguished by this very characteristic, that it is in a condition of complete disorganisation. The substances that are contained in it are reduced to chaos and are in no sort of combination, they are tossed and jumbled together to form a mere accumulation without order or proportion; and on this very account the albumen is no longer subject to the Earth. So long as the albumen can by some means or other be held together in inward cohesion, so long is it subject to the forces that work from the centre of the Earth. The moment the albumen is inwardly split up and destroyed, it comes under the influence of the whole sphere of the Cosmos. Forces work in upon it from every quarter. And then we have the tiny particle of albumen that forms the basis for reproduction. This tiny particle is an image of the entire Cosmos, because albumen substance has been split up, destroyed and reduced to chaos—converted, that is, into cosmic dust and thereby fitted to become exposed to the working of the entire Cosmos.

Of all this men have to-day simply no knowledge at all. They imagine the old hen has the complicated albumen. This is included in the egg, and thence arises the new hen. It is the albumen continued, it has gone on evolving. Then the germinal substance is developed once again; and so it goes on from hen to hen. In actual fact it is not so. Every time the transition takes place from one generation to the next, the albumen is exposed to the whole Cosmos.

On the one hand, therefore we have the earthly substances, subject to the earthly or central forces. But we can also imagine these earthly substances exposed in certain circumstances to the forces that work in from all quarters, from the farthest limits of the universe. The latter forces are the ones that work in the human etheric body. The etheric body is subject to the forces of the Cosmos. These are real conceptions of physical body and etheric body.

Suppose you stand there and ask, what is my physical body? The answer is, it is that body which is subject to the forces proceeding from the centre of the Earth. What is my etheric body? It is that in you which is subject to the forces streaming in on all sides from the periphery. You can even show it in a drawing. Imagine that this is the human being. His physical body is the one that is subject to the forces that go towards the centre of the Earth. His etheric body is the one that is subject to the forces streaming in from all sides, from the ends of the Universe. Here we have a system of forces in man. There are forces that pull downward,—they are really present in all organs that are upright,—and there are forces that pour in from without, tending inward. You can actually perceive in the form of man where the one kind and the other are more represented. Study the legs and it is obvious, their form is due to the fact that they are more adapted to the earthly forces. The head is more adapted to the forces of the periphery. In like manner you may also study the arms, and this is not uninteresting. Hold your arms close to your body, and they are subject to the forces that go towards the centre of the Earth. Move them in a living way, and you yourself will be subjecting them to the forces streaming in from all sides of the periphery.

Such indeed is the difference between arms and legs. The legs are invariably subject to the central forces of the Earth, while the arms are so only in a certain posture, that is to say, conditionally. Man is able to lift them out of the domain of the earthly central forces and place them in the midst of those forces which we call the ethereal forces, the forces pouring in from the periphery. And so you can see for all the single organs, how they are placed in the whole cosmic system. Here then you have your physical body and your etheric body.

How is it with the astral body? In space, there is no other kind of forces besides these two. The astral body receives its forces from beyond space. While the etheric body receives them from everywhere, from the periphery, the astral body receives them from beyond all space.

We can actually find certain places in Nature where the physical forces of the Earth enter into the midst of the etheric forces that stream in from all sides. You may imagine albumen to begin with as a substance present in the physical Earth. So long as sulphur, carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen are in any way chemically recognisable in it, the albumen is in fact subject to the earthly forces. But the moment it enters the sphere of the reproductive process, it is lifted out of the physical forces. The forces of the circumference of the Universe begin to work upon it in its disorganised condition. New albumen comes into being as an image of the whole Universe.

But you see, sometimes the following situation emerges. The disorganisation, the breaking down of the albumen cannot go far enough. You may have albumenous substance of this kind in connection with some animal for instance. For reproduction to take place, it should be possible for it to be divided, broken down entirely, so that it may submit itself to the forces of the whole Cosmos. But the animal is somehow prevented from delivering, for purposes of reproduction, such albumenous substance as would be able straight-away to submit itself to the whole macrocosm. To be capable of reproduction, albumenous substance must submit itself to the whole macrocosm. But the animal in this case is in some way unable to form albumenous substance capable of reproduction without further assistance. This is how it is with the gall-fly. What then does the gall-fly do? It lays its egg in some part of a plant. Again and again you may find these galls, in oaks, and in other trees where the gall-fly lays her eggs. In the leaf, for instance, you can see these strange formations. Within each one is the egg of a gall-fly. Why does it happen so? Why is the egg of a gall-fly laid in an oak leaf, with the result that the oak-apple is formed, holding within it the egg, which is now able to develop? The reason for this is as follows. The plant-leaf contains within it an etheric body, which is adapted to the whole cosmic ether. It comes to the assistance of the egg of the gall-fly. Left alone, the gall-fly's egg is helpless. Hence the gall-fly lays it in a portion of a plant which contains already an etheric body included in the whole system of the cosmic ether. The gall-fly therefore approaches the oak in order to get help in the breaking down of its albumen, so that the world-periphery may be able to work via the oak leaf, via the oak. Alone, the egg of the gall-fly would be doomed to destruction, for it cannot be broken down, it holds together too strongly.

Here we can gain an insight into a strange working of Nature. But this same working is present in Nature in other places too. Suppose for instance that the animal is not merely incapable of providing germ substance which can expose itself to the cosmic ether for the sake of reproduction; suppose it is not even able to transform any substances within it into inner means of nourishment, that is, to use them for its own inner nourishment. The example of the bee lies near at hand. The bee cannot eat anything and everything. It can only eat what the plant has already prepared for it. And now observe something very strange and remarkable. The bee goes to the plant, seeks out the honey juice, absorbs it, assimilates it within itself, and then builds up what we admire so, the wonderful cell structure of the beehive. Here we observe two most strange and wonderful processes: the bee sitting on the flower outside and sucking in the juice, and then, having gone into the beehive, building up from within itself in co-operation with the other bees the cells of wax that will be filled with honey.

What is it that really takes place? You must look carefully at the shape of the cells. They are like this and here comes another joined on to it, and so on, and so on. They are small cells, and similar in form to something else we find in Nature, only there the hollow space is filled up; they are shaped like quartz crystals, like the crystals of silicic acid. If you go into the mountains and examine the quartz crystals, you will find you can draw them, too, in that form. The drawing will, it is true, show some irregularity of shape, but in the main the form will be similar to the form of the bee-cells that are arranged side by side. Only, the cells of the bee are made of wax and the quartz is made of silicic acid.

When we follow up the matter, we find that long ago at a certain point of time in the evolution of the Earth the quartz-crystal was first formed in the mountains. It was formed under the prevailing etheric and astral influences, with the aid of silicic acid. There you have forces that come from the circumference, working, as ethereal-astral forces, and building the quartz crystals in the siliceous substance. Everywhere in the mountains you will find these crystals with their wonderful hexagonal forms. What you find in the solid crystals, you find again as hollow forms—as hollow spaces—in the cells of wax, in the beehive.

For what happens? The bee takes from the flower that which once upon a time brought the quartz crystal into being. The bee fetches it up out of the flower and makes with the substance of her own body imitations of the quartz crystal. A process thus takes place between bee and flower that is similar to what took place long ago in the macrocosm.

I tell you these things that you may understand how necessary it is not merely to take cognisance of the presence of carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen and oxygen, all of which analysis is piteously abstract, but to observe and note the marvellous formative processes, the intimate inner conditions that prevail in Nature and her processes. Once, long ago, science was instinctively built up on such observation. But that all passed away in the course of the historical evolution of mankind; it came to an end about the 15th century. We must win it back. We must find our way again into the intimate connections of Nature and of her relation with man. Only when we are able once more to recognise such connections can we hope to find again a true insight into the healthy as well as into the diseased human being. Otherwise all pharmacology remains merely a matter of testing and experimenting, without any perception of the inner connections that are at work.

The period from the 15th century until now may be described as an unfruitful period in the evolution of the human spirit. It has borne man down beneath its weight. Man has looked out upon plant and animal, upon human being and upon mineral, and all the while without any real knowledge of them whatsoever; he has been brought right out of connection with the world and the universe. Now at length it has landed him in chaos as far as his relation with the great world is concerned; he lives without knowing that he is in any sort of connection with the world around him. In the days when men pondered and meditated upon such things, it was known that every time reproduction took place, the whole macrocosm speaks. In the germ or seed that is capable of reproduction comes to birth a minute image of the whole macrocosm. All around is the great world; and in the tiniest germ is an offspring of the influences that stream in from the great world from every direction.

In the human being we may see working together, first of all the forces that are the physical-central forces of the Earth. These forces work in all the organs of the human being. But everywhere in him work also, in an opposite direction, the forces that stream in from all sides, the etheric forces. Look at the liver, for example, or the lungs: you will only understand them when you know that in them are working together the forces that come from the centre of the Earth and the forces that come in from every direction from the circumference of the Universe. Then we have also certain organs that are permeated by the astral body, or again by the ego-organisation, whilst others are less permeated by these higher members. In the condition of sleep, of course, the human being as a whole has not his astral body and ego-organisation in him at all. Now imagine that some organ, let us say one of the lungs has through some circumstance become too strongly affected by the forces that stream in everywhere from the Cosmic All. The lung will in consequence become diseased, for a certain harmony and balance is necessary between that which works in the lung from the centre of the Earth and that which streams in upon it from all parts of the circumference. If you can succeed in finding mineral substances which will provide a counterpoise in the lung to the too strongly working etheric forces, then you will have a remedy wherewith to eliminate their over-activity. The reverse may also happen. The etheric forces may become too weak, and the physical forces that work from the centre of the Earth grow correspondingly too strong. This time you will search the whole kingdom of the plants to discover something that shall strengthen the etheric forces in the organ where they are weak; and then you will have your remedy for this condition. It is quite impossible to find even the slightest remedy by an observation of the physical body alone, for the physical body of man has in itself no ground for telling anything about its own constitution. The so-called normal process that goes on in the physical body is a process of Nature. But the process that goes on in illness is likewise a process of Nature. If you have what is called a normal healthy liver, you have a liver in which processes of Nature take place. And if you have a liver in which there is an abscess, you have also a liver in which processes of Nature take place. The difference can never be found by investigating the physical body. All you can do from investigation of the physical body is to establish the fact that the appearance is different in the one case from the other. You can learn nothing of the cause. If you have an abscess on the liver, you will only be able to discover the cause of it when you know that in such a case, for example, the astral body enters much more powerfully into the liver than it should. What you have to do is to drive out of the liver the astral body, which has taken possession there too strongly. From all this it is clear that there is really no possibility of speaking about the healthy and the diseased human being in a way that accords with the facts, unless we go beyond the physical body and include also in our consideration the higher members of man's being. We shall indeed only regain a pharmacology when we go beyond the physical body, for the nature of illness is simply not demonstrable from the physical body alone.

At the present time my purpose is merely to set forth these things in their historical aspect and connections. It must, however, be pointed out that with the gradual dimming and darkening of that which has been brought over from olden times, all real knowledge of the human being has died right away. And now to-day we are faced with the necessity of acquiring once again a knowledge of the human being. Such knowledge will be attainable when we are once again in a position to understand the relationship of the human being to the surrounding kingdoms of Nature.

Suppose, then, we take our start from the ego-organisation of the human being. If, through initiation science, we have attained to imaginative cognition and are able to perceive the ego-organisation of man, then we may ask ourselves: With what portion of the human organism (in its present state) does this ego-organisation stand in especially near relation? It stands in an especial relation with all that is mineral in the human being. Hence when you receive into yourself some essentially mineral substance,—for example, when you take some salt on your tongue—it is the ego-organisation in you that immediately pounces upon this mineral substance. And as the substance is carried further into the body, all the while,—even when the salt substance is in the stomach—the ego-organisation remains with it. The salt goes still further, it undergoes various changes, it passes through the intestines,—never once does the ego-organisation leave hold of her salt! They behave like two closely related things, two things that belong to one another: the ego-organisation, and the salt that enters the human being.

It is quite another matter when you eat, for example, a poached egg, or any substance of a similar—albumenous—consistency. The ego-organisation is very little concerned when you have a piece of poached egg on your tongue. Afterwards, as it slips down into the stomach, the astral body concerns itself with it, but again only to a very small extent. Then it goes further. And now, first the etheric and then the physical body begin to act intensively upon it. They break down within you the albumen that you receive into your organism with the egg. The egg itself is now made entirely of mineral within you. It is broken down and destroyed. All life is driven out of it. It is destroyed within you. At the walls of the intestines the albumen substance that you have taken into you from outside ceases to be albumen in any sense, becomes entirely mineral in character. And now it passes over into the ego-organisation; from this point the mineralised albumen is taken up by the ego-organisation.

Thus, the ego-organisation concerns itself only with what is mineral. And all mineral substances are changed through its action; in the human organism they become different from what they were outside it. No mineral substance can remain the same within the human organism as it is outside. The ego-organisation has to look after this in a very thorough manner. Nor is it only such substances as cooking salt and the like that are seized upon by the ego-organisation and inwardly changed to something quite different. The human being is surrounded by a certain condition of warmth, but that external condition of warmth must never be allowed to penetrate the human being. You can never have your finger full of that which is all around you as external warmth. This warmth can but act as a stimulus, you yourself must create and produce the warmth that you have within you. The moment you are merely, so to say, an object and do not yourself create your own warmth or cold, but let the warmth from outside extend its influence into you exactly as it does into any external object,—in that moment you become ill. The external warmth,—not even a substance, but the warmth itself makes you ill. Suppose you have here a towel or a sponge, and over there is a fire. The warmth of the fire, which can spread out all around quite easily, will permeate the towel or the sponge. The towel or sponge only carries a little further the radiating warmth of the fire. When, however, the warmth of the fire reaches the skin of the human being and acts upon the senses, stimulating them, then it must no longer simply spread in this way; then the reaction must come, the inner warmth must be created from within. If a person catches cold, his condition results from the fact that he has not merely let himself be stimulated to create his own inner warmth, but has let the external cold enter to some extent beneath the skin. Thus he does not take his place in the world as a fully active human being who fills himself with his own activity and his own impulses, but plays rather the part of an object that lets the activities and influences of the outer world pass through him. That is the essential nature of the ego-organisation that it takes up into itself what is mineral and completely changes it from within, converting it into something altogether different.

Not until we have died does the mineral turn back again into the mineral of external Nature. So long as we are alive on the Earth, and have the mineral enclosed in our skin, so long does the ego-organisation continue to change it perpetually. Similarly, whatever we take up into ourselves that is of a plant nature is perpetually changed by the working of the astral body. It is in everything of a mineral nature that the ego-organisation brings about a thorough metamorphosis; not merely in the solid mineral, but also in the liquid and gaseous mineral, and the mineral that is in the state of warmth or heat.

Of course, when we speak in quite an ordinary way, we may say: Here is some water. I drink it. Now I have the water inside me. The truth is, however, that the moment my organism receives the water, then by reason of the action of my ego-organisation, the water inside me is no longer the same as the water outside. It only becomes the same again when I give it off in the form of perspiration, or in some other way convert it into water. Inside my skin water is not water, it is living fluid.

In this manner we shall have to alter our thought about a great many things. To-day I have only been able to give you small indications. Think them over. Think how the albumen has to be broken down and disorganised in order that it may be exposed to the influences of the whole macrocosm. Think how the water I drink becomes in me living fluid and is no longer the inorganic water it was before, but is water permeated by the ego-organisation. Think how, when you eat cabbage—outside you it was cabbage, inside you the astral body receives the cabbage into itself and transforms it into something new. And here we come to the consideration of very important processes in the human body. We learn to perceive how we have in our metabolic system processes that are only one evolutionary stage removed from the metabolisms that we have, for example, in our brain—the metabolisms that go to make up the nervous system, and so forth. I will speak further on this tomorrow and make clear, in connection with these processes, the radical difference between men of the 12th and of the 20th century. We shall thus come to see the necessity for new impulses to enter in, if there is to be progress in the understanding of health and disease, and if the knowledge of man is not to die out altogether and nothing more ever be known of the healthy or of the diseased human being.