III. Karma and Freedom
23 February 1924, Dornach
Karma is best understood by contrasting it with that other impulse in man — the impulse which we indicate by the word freedom. Let us first, in a very crude way, I should say, place the question of karma before us. What does it signify?
In human life we have to record the fact of successive earth lives. By feeling ourselves within a given earth life, we can look back — in thought at least, to begin with — and see how this present earth life is a repetition of a number of previous earth lives. It was preceded by another, and that in turn by yet another life on earth, and so on until we get back into the ages where it is impossible to speak of repeated earth lives as we do in the present epoch of the earth, for in going farther backward, we reach a time when the life between birth and death and the life between death and a new birth become so similar that the immense difference which exists be- l ween them today is no longer present. Today we live in our earthly body bet ween birth and death in such a way that in every-day consciousness we feel cut off from the spiritual world. Out of this every-day consciousness, men speak of the spiritual world as a “beyond.” They even speak of it as though they might doubt its existence, as though they might deny it altogether, and so forth.
This is because man's life within earthly existence restricts him to the outer world of the senses, and to the intellect; the latter does not look far enough to perceive what really is connected with this earthly existence. Out of this, countless arguments arise, all of which actually are rooted in something unknown. No doubt, you will have often stood among people and experienced how they argued about monism, dualism, and so forth. It is, of course, quite absurd to argue about these catch-words. When people argue in this way, we are reminded of some primitive man, let us say, who has never heard that there is such a substance as air. It will not occur to anyone who knows that air exists, and what its functions are, to speak of it as something belonging to the beyond. Nor will he think of declaring: “I am a monist; air, water, and earth arc one, and you arc a dualist, because you regard air as something that extends beyond the earthly and watery elements.”
All these things are pure nonsense, as, indeed, are mostly all arguments about concepts. There can, therefore, be no question of our entering into such matters, but it can only be a question of drawing attention to them. For just as the air is not present for the one who knows nothing about it, but for him is something belonging to the “beyond,” so for those who do not yet know the spiritual world, which also exists everywhere just as the air, this spiritual world is something belonging to the “beyond;” but for those who take the matter into consideration, the spiritual world is something that belongs very much to this side. Thus, it is simply a question of our acknowledging the fact that at the present earth period the human being between birth and death lives in his physical body, in his whole organism, in such a way that this organism gives him a consciousness whereby he is cut off from a certain world of causes which, none the less, affects this physical earth existence.
Then, between death and a new birth he lives in another world, which we may call a spiritual world in contrast to our physical world; in this spiritual world he does not have a physical body which can be made visible to human senses, but he lives in a spiritual nature. And in this life between death and a new birth the world through which he passes between birth and death is just as alien, in turn, as the spirit world is now alien to every-day consciousness.
The dead look down onto the physical world just as the living that is the physically living — look upward into the spiritual world, and only the feelings are, so to speak, reversed. While the human being here in the physical world between birth and death has a certain aspiration toward another world which grants him fulfilment of much of which there is too little in this world, or of which this world affords him no satisfaction, he must between death and a new birth on account of the multitude of events, and because too much happens in proportion to what a human being can bear, feel a constant longing to return to earth life, to what is then the life in the beyond; hence, during the second half of the life between death and a new birth, he awaits with great longing the passage through birth into a new earth existence. Just as in earth existence the human being is afraid of death, because an uncertainty prevails about what happens thereafter — for in earth life a great uncertainty prevails for ordinary consciousness about what happens after death — so in the life between death and a new birth the condition is just the reverse, there prevails an excessive certainty about earth life. It is a certainty that stuns the human being, that makes him literally faint, so that he is in a state resembling a fainting dream, a state which fills him with the longing to descend again to earth.
These are only a few indications of the great difference prevailing between the earthly life and the life between death and a new birth. If, however, we now go back, let us say, even only as far as the Egyptian period, from the third on up into the first millennium before the founding of Christianity — and, after all, if we go back into this epoch, we go back to those human beings who were none other than ourselves, in a former earth life — indeed, then, at that time during earth existence, life was quite different from our so brutally clear consciousness of the present day. At present human beings have, indeed, a brutally clear consciousness; they are all so clever — I do not at all intend to be ironical — the people of today are, indeed, all very clever. In contrast to this brutally clear consciousness of today, the consciousness of the human being of the ancient Egyptian period was much more dream-like, a consciousness that did not, like ours, strike against outer objects. It passed through the world, as it were, without striking against objects. Instead, it was filled with pictures which, at the same time, revealed something of the spiritual existing in our environment. The spiritual still penetrated into physical earth existence.
Do not ask: How could a man with this more dream-like consciousness, not the brutally clear consciousness of today, have performed the tremendous tasks which were actually achieved, for instance, in the ancient Egyptian or Chaldean epochs? You need merely call to mind the fact that mad people at times, in certain states of mania, possess an immense increase of their physical forces; they begin to carry things which they could not carry when in a completely clear state of consciousness. It was, indeed, a fact that the physical strength of the human beings of that time was correspondingly greater, although they were perhaps of slighter build than men of today. For, as you know, it does not always follow that a stout man is strong and a thin man weak. But they did not spend their earthly life in observing every detail of their physical actions; their physical deeds went parallel with experiences into which the spiritual world still extended.
And again, when the people of that time were in the life between death and a new birth, then far more of this earthly life extended upward into the life beyond — if I may be allowed to use the expression “upward.” Nowadays it is exceedingly difficult to communicate with those who are present in the life between death and a new birth, for languages have gradually assumed a form no longer understood by the dead. Our nouns, for instance, soon after death are absolute gaps in the dead's comprehension of the earthly world. They understand nothing but the verbs, i.e. the words of motion, of action. And while we here on earth have our attention constantly drawn by materialistically minded people to the fact that everything should be defined in an orderly manner, and every concept be limited and sharply defined, the dead no longer know anything of definitions; they only know what is in motion, not what has contours and is limited.
But in more ancient times that which lived on earth as speech, that which lived as usage and habit of thought, was still of such a nature that it extended up into the life between death and a new birth, and the dead still heard an echo of this long after their death, and also an echo of what occurred on earth even after their death.
And if we go still farther back into the time following the catastrophe of Atlantis — the eighth and ninth millennium before the Christian era t lit* difference between the life on earth and the life in the beyond, if I may so describe it, becomes even more insignificant. And then, as we go backward, we gradually reach the ages when the two lives are similar. We can then no longer speak of repeated earth lives.
Thus, repeated earth lives have their limit as we look backward, just as they will have their limit when we look forward into the future. For what begins quite consciously with Anthroposophy — the extension of the spiritual world into the ordinary consciousness of man — will have the consequence that this earth world will extend, in turn, into the world through which we live between death and a new birth; but, in spite of this, our consciousness will not grow dream-like, but clearer and ever clearer. The difference will once again grow less. So that this living in repeated earth lives is limited by outermost boundaries, which then lead into quite another sort of human existence, where it is meaningless to speak of repeated earth lives, because the difference between the earthly and the spiritual life is not so great as it is today.
If we now assume, however, for the long stretch of the present period of the earth age that behind this earth life there lie others — we must not say countless others, for they can even be counted by exact spiritual- scientific research — if we say: behind our present earth life there lie many others, then we have had certain experiences in these previous earth lives which represented certain relationships between human beings. And the effects of these relationships between human beings, which at that time lived themselves out in what we then underwent, extend into this present earth life in the same way as the effects of what we do in this present earth life extend into our next lives on earth. Thus, we have to seek in the former earth life the causes of much that now enters into our present life. Then it is easy for the human being to say: “Thus, what I experience now is conditioned, caused. How can I, then, be a free human being?”
Now, this question is, indeed, a rather significant one, if we consider it in this way. For all spiritual observation shows that in this way the subsequent earth life is conditioned by the earlier ones. On the other hand, the consciousness of freedom absolutely exists. And, when you read my Philosophy of Spiritual Activity, you will see that we cannot understand the human being at all, if we are not clear about the fact that his whole soul life tends, is directed, is oriented toward freedom, but a freedom which we have to understand correctly.
Now, it is precisely in my Philosophy of Spiritual Activity that you will find an idea of freedom which it is very important to grasp correctly. The point is that we have developed freedom, to begin with, in thought. The fountainhead of freedom is in thought. Man has an immediate consciousness of the fact that he is a free being in his thought. You may rejoin: “But there are many people today who doubt the fact of freedom.” Yes, but this only proves that the theoretical fanaticism of people today is often stronger than their direct experience in reality. Because he is so crammed full of theoretical concepts the human being no longer believes in his own experiences. Out of his observations of the processes of nature, he arrives at the idea that everything is conditioned by necessity, every effect has a cause, all that exists has its cause; thus, if I conceive a thought, this has also a cause. He does not at once think of repeated earth lives in this connection, but he imagines that what wells forth from human thinking is caused in the same way as that which comes out of a machine.
As a result of this theory of universal causation, as it is called, the human being blinds himself frequently to the fact that he bears very clearly within himself the consciousness of freedom. Freedom is a fact which we experience, as soon as we really reflect upon ourselves.
Now, there are also those who are of the opinion that the nervous system is just a nature system, conjuring thoughts out of itself. According to this, then, the thoughts would — let us say — be necessary results, just like the flame which burns under the influence of a fuel, and there could be no question of freedom.
These people, however, contradict themselves in talking at all. As I have often related here, I had a friend in my youth, who had a fanatical inclination, at a certain period, to think materialistically. Thus, he said: “When I walk, for example, then it is the nerves of the brain, infiltrated by certain causes, which bring my walking into effect.” This led, at times, to quite a long debate with him. I finally said to him on one occasion: “Now, look here, you always say: ‘I walk.’ Why do you not say: ‘My brain walks?’ If you really believe in your theory, you ought never to say: ‘I walk, I take hold of things,’ but: ‘My brain walks, my brain takes hold of things.’ Why do you tell a lie?”
These are the theorists, but there are also the practical men. If they observe any nonsense in themselves which they do not wish to stop, they say: “O, I cannot get rid of that; it is just a part of my nature. It is there of its own accord, and I am powerless against it.” There are many such people; they refer to the immutable causation of their own nature. But, as a rule, they do not remain consistent. If they happen to be showing off something they rather like about themselves for which they need no excuse, but on the contrary are glad to receive a little flattery, they then abandon the aforesaid view.
The fundamental fact of the free human being — a self-evident fact can be directly experienced. Now, even in the ordinary, everyday earth life it is a fact that we do many things in complete freedom which, nevertheless, are of such a kind that we cannot easily leave them undone. And yet we do not feel our freedom in the least impaired through this fact.
Let us suppose, for a moment, that you now resolve to build yourself a house. It will take about a year to build it. In a year you will live in it. Will you feel that your freedom has been curtailed through the fact that you then have to say to yourself: “The house is now there, and I must move in, I must live in it; it is a case of compulsion?” No, you will surely not feel your freedom impaired through the fact of your having built a house for yourself. You see, therefore, even in ordinary life these two things stand side by side: You have committed yourself to something. It has thereby become a fact in life, a fact with which you have to reckon.
Now think of all that stems from former lives on earth, with which you have to reckon, because it is due to your own deeds — just as the building of the house is caused by you. Seen in this light, you will not feel your freedom impaired through the fact that your present life on earth is determined by former ones.
Perhaps you will say: “Very well. I will build me a house, but I still wish to remain a free man. I will not let myself be compelled. If I do not like it, I shall, in a year, not move into the new house; I shall sell it.” All right! We might also have our opinion about such a procedure; we might, perhaps, have the opinion that, if you do this, you are a person who does not know his own mind. Indeed, we might well have this opinion; but let us disregard this. Let us disregard the fact that a man is such a fanatical upholder of freedom that he constantly makes up his mind to do things, and afterwards out of sheer “freedom” leaves them undone. We then might well say: “That man has not even the freedom to enter upon the things he himself resolves upon. He constantly feels the goad of the will to be free and is positively persecuted by his fanatical worship of freedom.”
It is really important that these things not be taken in a rigid, theoretical manner, but be grasped in fullness of life. Let us now pass over to a more complicated concept. If we ascribe freedom to man, surely we must also ascribe it to the higher beings who are not hampered in their freedom by the limitations of human nature. If we rise to the beings of the higher Hierarchies, who certainly are not hampered by the limitations of human nature, we must, indeed, seek a higher degree of freedom with them. Now someone might propose a rather strange theological theory to the effect that God must surely be free; He has arranged the world in a certain way;
He has, however, thereby committed Himself; He certainly cannot change the world-order every day; thus, after all, He would in that case be unfree.
You see, if in this way you place in antithesis inner karmic necessity and freedom, which is a fact of our consciousness, which is simply a result of self-observation, you cannot then escape a continuous circle. In this way you cannot escape from a circle. For the matter is as follows: Let us take once more the illustration of the building of a house. I do not wish to press this example too far, but at this point it can still help us along the way. Someone builds himself a house. I will not say: I build myself a house — I shall probably never build one for myself — but, let us say, someone builds himself a house. Well, by this resolve he does, in a certain respect, determine his future. Now, when the house is finished, and he takes his former resolve into account, no freedom apparently remains for him, so far as the living in the house is concerned. He himself has certainly set this limitation to his freedom; nevertheless, apparently no freedom remains for him.
But just think, how many things still remain for you to do in freedom within this house, Indeed, within it you are even free to be stupid or wise, you are free to be horrid or lovable to your fellow men. In the house you are free to get up early or late. Perhaps, you may be under other obligations in this respect; but so far as the house is concerned, you are free to get up early or late. You are free to be an anthroposophist or a materialist within this house. In short, there are innumerable things still at your free disposal.
Likewise, in an individual human life, in spite of the presence of karmic necessity, there are countless things at your free disposal, far more than in a house, countless things fully and really in the domain of freedom.
Here you may, perhaps, be able to rejoin: “Very well, we do then have a certain domain of freedom in our life.” Indeed, that is so: a certain enclosed domain of freedom surrounded by the karmic necessity (see Figure III). Now, looking at this, you may assert the following. You may say: “Well, I am free in a certain domain; but I now reach the limits of my freedom. I then feel the karmic necessity everywhere. I walk around in my room of freedom, but everywhere at the boundaries I come up against my karmic necessity and sense this necessity.”
Indeed, my dear friends, if a fish thought likewise, it would be extremely unhappy in the water, for as it swims in the water it reaches the water's boundary. Outside of the water it can no longer live. Hence it refrains from going outside of the water. It does not go at all outside of the water; it remains in the water, it swims around in the water, and it just lets alone the other element which lies beyond, be it air or something else. And because the fish does this, I can in assure you that it is not at all unhappy over the fact that it cannot breathe with lungÂ«. It does not occur to it to be unhappy. But, if ever it did occur to the fish to be unhappy because it breathes only with gills and not with lungs, then it would have to have lungs in reserve, then it would have to compare the difference between living down below in it lie water, and up in the air. Then the fish's whole way of feeling itself inwardly would be different. It would all be quite different.
If we apply this comparison to human life with respect to freedom and karmic necessity, then it is a fact, in the first place, that the human being in the present earth period has the ordinary consciousness. With this ordinary consciousness he lives in the sphere of freedom, just as the fish lives in the water, and with this consciousness he does not enter at all the realm of karmic necessity. Only when he begins really to perceive the spiritual world — this would be similar to the fish having lungs in reserve — only when he really finds his way into the spiritual world, does he acquire a perception of the impulses living in him as karmic necessity.
He then looks back into his former lives on earth and does not feel, does not say, on finding the causes of his present experiences in a previous earth life: “I am now under the compulsion of an iron necessity, and my freedom is impaired,” but he looks back and sees how he himself has fashioned what now confronts him, just as someone who has built himself a house looks back on the resolve which led him to build it. And we generally find it more reasonable to ask: “Was it, at that time, a sensible or foolish resolve to build this house?” Well, naturally, we can come later on to all sorts of opinions on the matter, if the things turn out in a certain way; but, if we find that it was an enormous stupidity to build the house, we can, at best, say that we were foolish.
Now, in earth life it is an awkward matter in regard to anything which one has inaugurated to have to say that it was stupid. We do not like this. We do not like to suffer from our own follies. We wish we had not made the foolish decision. But this really applies only to the one earth life, because between the foolishness of the resolve and the punishment we suffer in having to experience its consequences there lies the same earth life. It always remains thus.
But this is not so between the individual earth lives. For between them always lie the lives between death and a new birth; and these lives between death and a new birth change many things which would not change if earth life were to continue uniformly. Just suppose that you look back into a former earth life. There you did something good or ill to another human being. The life between death and a new birth took place between this previous earth life and the present earth life. In this life, in this spiritual life, you cannot think otherwise than that you have become imperfect by having done something evil to another human being. This takes away from your value as a human being. It cripples you in soul. You must repair the crippling, and you resolve to achieve in a new earth life what will make good the fault. Thus, between death and a new birth you absorb by your own will that which will compensate for the fault. If you have done good to another human being, you then know that the whole of human life is there for the whole of mankind. You see this most clearly in the life between death and a new birth. You then realize that when you have helped another human being, he has thereby achieved certain things which, without you, he would not have achieved in a former earth life; but, as a result, you feel again united with him in the life between death and a new birth, in order now to live and to develop further what you have achieved together with him in regard to human perfection. You seek him out again in a new earth life in order, in this new earth life, to work further with him through the way you have already helped him perfect himself.
The fact is not at all that we might abhor such necessity, when we, through a real insight into the spirit world, now perceive the scope of this karmic necessity all around us, but the fact is that we look back upon this necessity and see how the things were which we ourselves had done, and then behold them in such a way that we say: “What occurs out of inner necessity has to happen — out of complete freedom also it would have, to happen.”
We shall never have the experience of possessing a real insight into karma without being in agreement with it. If things result in the course of karma which do not please us, then we ought to consider them from the point of view of the general laws and principles of the universe. And we shall then realize more and more that, after all, what is karmically conditioned is better than our having to begin anew, better than our being a book of blank pages with every new earth life. For, as a matter of fact, we are ourselves our karma. We are ourselves that which comes over from previous earth lives. And it has no sense at all to say that something in our karma — alongside of which there exists definitely the realm of freedom — that something in our karma ought to be different from what it is, because it is not at all possible to criticize the single detail in an organically connected totality. Someone may not like his nose; but it is senseless to criticize merely the nose, as such, for the nose a man has must actually be as it is, if the whole man is as he is. The one who says: “I should like to have a different nose,” actually says that he would like to be an utterly different man. But in so doing he really eliminates himself in thought. This we cannot do. Thus, we cannot wipe out our karma, for we are ourselves our karma. Nor does it at all confound us, for it runs its course alongside the deeds of our freedom, and in no wise interferes with the deeds of our freedom.
I should like to use still another comparison to make the point clear. As human beings, we walk; but the ground on which we walk is also there. No one feels interfered with in walking by having the ground underneath his feet. Indeed, he ought even to know that, were the ground not there, he could not walk at all; he would fall through everywhere. It is thus with our freedom; it needs the “ground” of necessity. It must rise out of a foundation. And this foundation — we ourselves are.
As soon as we grasp in the right way the concept of freedom and the concept of karma, we shall be able to find them compatible, and we then need no longer shrink from a detailed study of the karmic laws. Indeed, in some instances we may even come to the following conclusion:
I now assume that someone, by means of the insight of initiation, is able to look back into former earth lives. He knows quite well, when he looks back into former earth lives that this and that has happened to him which has come with him into his present earth life. Had he not attained to initiation science, objective necessity would impel him to do certain things. He would do them quite inevitably. He would not feel his freedom hampered by it; for his freedom lies in his ordinary consciousness with which he never penetrates into the realm where this necessity acts, just as the fish never penetrates into the outer air. But when he has initiation science within him, he then looks back and he sees how things were in a former earth life, and he regards what now confronts him as a task which is consciously allotted to him for this present earth life. This is, indeed, a fact.
What I shall now say may sound paradoxical to you, yet it is true. In reality, a man who possesses no initiation science practically always knows through a kind of inner urge, through an instinct, what he is to do. O, indeed, people always know what they ought to do, feel themselves always impelled to this thing or that. For the one who begins with initiation science, matters become somewhat different in the world. As he faces life, quite strange questions arise in regard to the individual experiences. If he feels impelled to do something, he immediately feels also impelled not to do it. The obscure urge which drives most human beings to this or that is eliminated. And, actually, at a certain stage of initiate-insight, if nothing else were to intervene, a man could really come to the point of saying to himself: “After having reached this insight, I now prefer to spend the entire remainder of my life — I am now 40 years old, which is a matter of indifference to me — sitting on a chair doing nothing. For such pronounced urges to do this or that are no longer present.”
Do not believe, my dear friends, that initiation does not have a reality. It is strange, in this connection, how people sometimes think. In regard to a roast chicken, everyone who eats it believes that it has reality. In regard to initiate science, most people believe that it has only theoretical effects. No, it has effects on life. And such a life effect is the one I have just indicated. Before a man has attained to initiation, under the influence of an obscure urge, one thing is always important to him and another unimportant. The initiate would prefer to sit in a chair and let the world run its course, for it really does not matter — so it might appear to him whether this is done and that is left undone, and so forth. It will, however, not remain so, for initiation science also offers something else besides. The only corrective for the initiate's sitting on a chair, letting the world run its course, and saying: “everything is a matter of indifference to me,” is to look back into former earth lives. He then reads there from his karma the tasks for his present earth life, and he does consciously what his former earth lives impose upon him. He does not abstain from doing it because he believes that thereby his freedom is encroached on, but he does it. He does it, because by his discovery of what he had experienced in previous earth lives he becomes aware, at the same time, of what his life between death and a new birth has been, how he then realized the performance of the corresponding consequential actions as something reasonable. He would feel himself unfree if he could not come into the position of fulfilling the task which is allotted to him by his former earth life.
Thus, neither before nor after the entry into initiation science is there a contradiction between karmic necessity and freedom. Before the entry into initiation science, there is none, because with every-day consciousness the human being remains within the realm of freedom, while karmic necessity takes place outside, like a process of nature. He has nothing that feels different from what his own nature inspires in him. Nor is there any contradiction after the entry into initiation science, because he is then quite in agreement with his karma and simply considers it reasonable to act in harmony with karma. Just as you do not say, if you have built yourself a house: “the fact that I must now move in is hampering my freedom,” but just as you will probably say: “well, on the whole it was quite sensible to build myself a house in this neighborhood and on this site; now, let me be free in this house!” so likewise the one who looks back with initiate knowledge into former earth lives knows that he becomes free by fulfilling his karmic task, by moving into the house which he built for himself in former earth lives.
Thus, my dear friends, I wanted to explain to you the true compatibility of freedom and karmic necessity in human life. Tomorrow we shall continue, going more into the details of karma.