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Cosmic Workings In Earth and Man
GA 352

VI. On Poisonous Substances and Their Effects

Dornach, 19th January, 1924

I have told you that man must be regarded as a being who consists not only of the physical body that is visible to the eye, but also of higher members—invisible bodies. The first invisible member, the ether body, is a much finer, more delicate body and cannot be perceived by the ordinary senses. It is the source of life not only in man, but also in the plants and animals. Another higher member is the astral body which enables man to have feelings and perceptions. He has this body in common with the animals, for they too have an astral body. But man has something which the animal has not, namely, self-consciousness, “I” consciousness. Man, then, consists of the visible physical body and of three higher members: ether body, astral body and the “I.”

When it is said, as the result of super-sensible perception, that these higher members are a reality in man, a good way of convincing oneself that such a statement is well-founded—there are other ways too, of course—is to study the effects of poisonous substances upon the human organism.

In speaking about the insects recently, we heard that in certain circumstances insect poison can have an extremely beneficial effect, that it actually counteracts certain illnesses. Most medicaments, indeed, are prepared from substances which, in the ordinary way, are poisons. They must, of course, be taken in the proper dosage, that is to say, they must be prepared as medicaments in such a way that they have the right effect upon the human organism.

Every poison has its own specific way of working. Arsenic is sometimes used to destroy rats and is a very strong poison. When a human being takes arsenic, or when arsenic is given to an animal, death either occurs immediately or if, by administering the appropriate antidote one succeeds in warding off death by expelling the arsenic, a kind of slow arsenical illness may set in and become gradually worse. If in his occupation a man is handling something of which arsenic is an ingredient, these tiny quantities of arsenic may give rise to arsenical poisoning as an occupational disease. When a man takes arsenic in a quantity insufficient to cause death, when he takes only a little but nevertheless enough to be injurious, then he gets pale and thin, has a chalky look about him and his body gradually deteriorates. He loses the natural freshness of his complexion and also the fatness that denotes a healthy state of the body. And so even if the effect of the arsenic is slow, the body gradually deteriorates.

But there is another side to the matter. There are valleys in the Austrian Alps, for example, where the stones and rocks contain arsenic. The people living there begin by taking tiny quantities of arsenic without any ill effects at all. They begin with minute quantities and then increase them—with the strange result that after some time their bodies can stand a considerable amount. Why do they take the arsenic? In most cases it is for reasons of vanity! They have an idea that the arsenic will give the skin a good colour; if they were once skinny and emaciated they get plump. They take the arsenic for vanity's sake, their bodies get accustomed to it and their complexions improve.

There you have a very striking contradiction! Such contradictions are to be found not only in human thinking—which as a rule is full of them—but in nature too. At one time the effect of the arsenic is that a man wastes away and his skin (not his hair) gets grey. Yet at another time arsenic is taken for the very purpose of improving the complexion! It is a complete contradiction.

What is the explanation? When science speaks of matters like this, we are told: There is no explanation, it simply is so. And indeed it cannot be explained if nothing is known about the super-sensible bodies of man! As I have told you, it is necessary for the human being to have formic acid in him all the time—and the same applies to arsenic. Man actually produces it in his own organism. This may seem surprising, but as I said to you once, it is not correct to state that a man can live without alcohol. He can, of course, live without drinking alcohol ... but without alcohol he cannot live. For even if he drinks no alcohol, his own body produces inwardly the quantity that is necessary to keep him alive. He produces in himself all the substances that are essential to his life. What he takes or receives from outside is merely a support, a stimulus. In reality, man himself produces the substances he needs, drawing them from the Cosmos into his organism. All such substances are present in the Cosmos in a state of fine and very delicate distribution—iron, for example, Man does not only take in the iron with his breathing; it also makes its way into the body through the eyes and ears. The iron that a man actually consumes is merely a support, a supplement, and most of it is subsequently excreted. If as human beings we were not obliged to live on the earth between birth and death and to cope with earthly affairs, it would be unnecessary for us to eat at all, for we could draw our sustenance from the universe. But when we have manual work to do, when we have to move about, we need the support of this extra iron, for the body itself does not produce a sufficient quantity.

Man produces arsenic in his organism all the time; so does the animal. The plant does not. And why? Because the plant has only an ether body and it is the astral body that produces arsenic. Man and animal, therefore, produce arsenic inwardly. Now what is the purpose of the arsenic? You see, if man were not able to produce arsenic in his organism, he would be incapable of feeling or perception; he would gradually lapse into a plant-like existence. He would begin, first of all, to be dreamy, and finally, he would go about in a state of utter drowsiness. The arsenic in his organism enables him to be wide-awake, to have feelings and perceptions. When I press my hand on something I not only squeeze the skin but I also feel something. And the reason why this feeling arises is that my astral body is producing arsenic all the time.

A man who takes arsenic strengthens the activity of the astral body. The consequence is that the astral body asserts itself all over the organism; it becomes excessively strong, seizes hold of all the organs and rots them away. That is what happens in rapid arsenical poisoning. If anyone takes a great deal of arsenic all at once, the astral body begins to be powerful to an alarming degree; it surges and swirls and finally destroys the activity of the whole organism. It drives the life out of the organs, for within the human being a perpetual battle is and must be in process between the astral body and the ether body. The ether body gives life; the astral body gives feeling, perception (awareness). But feeling and awareness cannot arise unless the life is suppressed. There is perpetual battle between the astral body and the ether body. If the ether body has the upper hand we become a little sleepy; if the astral body has the upper hand we become intensely wide-awake. Actually these conditions alternate in waking life, only the alternation is so rapid that it is not noticed and we think we are wide-awake all the time. In reality there is a constant swing: waking, sleeping; waking, sleeping. And what the astral body needs in order to be able to work down in the right way is provided by the amount of arsenic produced inwardly by the human being himself.

If arsenic is introduced from outside in excessive quantity, the astral body becomes suddenly very strong—so strong that it destroys the life in the ether body. The man can no longer live; he dies.

But if someone takes an amount of arsenic which makes the astral body only a little too strong, then the limbs and the inner organs gradually lose flesh and the man gets thin and has a greyish complexion, because the inner organs are not functioning in the right way. If he is given a very tiny quantity of arsenic, or if he is in the habit of taking such a quantity himself (in the latter case one will not give him any more because he is taking it already) then the astral body begins to be just a little lively; it stimulates the organs and the effect is just the reverse. If, from the beginning, too much arsenic has been given, the astral body destroys the organs; if only a little is given, the organs are stimulated just as they are stimulated by spice. If the dose is increased very gradually, the organs are able to stand it. The man begins to look healthier, to put on flesh, because his astral body is more active than it was before, when he was taking no arsenic.

But now think of someone who was once in the habit of taking arsenic and then is obliged to stop. In such a case his astral body ceases to be active, because the stimulus given by the arsenic is missing. The result will be a rapid deterioration in his health. And so a person who begins to take arsenic and then increases the doses to a certain point, becomes dependent upon it and must continue to take it until his death. That is where the mischief lies: the arsenic cannot be dispensed with and such people are dependent upon it all their lives. The only other possible course—unfortunately it very seldom succeeds—would be to take less and less by gradual degrees. But what usually happens is the story all over again of the peasant who thought that by applying this theory he would get an ox out of the habit of eating. He gave the ox less and less fodder and although it became very thin, it went on living; finally he gave it a single stalk, and then it died. Nevertheless the peasant was still convinced that if the ox had been able to do without this last stalk, it would still be alive. It is just the same with people who are supposed to be getting rid of the habit of taking arsenic. They collapse before they reach the point of being able to do without the final quantity.

Man's astral body needs arsenic and it is remarkable to see science groping its way about—for that is what is happening! We constantly hear, for example, that somewhere or other a remedy for syphilis has been discovered. You may have read in the newspapers a few days ago that a remedy for syphilis has been discovered in Paris. Now none of those who make these tentative experiments really know to what syphilis is due. Syphilis is due to the fact that the physical body has become excessively active and the astral body cannot take hold of it. But the scientists concerned do not know this and so they try things out experimentally Strangely enough, all these medicaments contain arsenic! If you go into the matter you will find that this is the case, although these things can only be explained by Spiritual Science. Arsenic is an ingredient of all these remedies, but the essentials are not known and people are groping in the dark. In many ways this is characteristic of modern science. It is realised, of course, that something happens in the human being when a medicament containing arsenic is administered; but what is not known is that the activity of the astral body is enhanced and that the excessive activity of the physical body is reduced by the administration of a solution of arsenic. Real insight into the nature of man—that is what a new science of medicine must help to promote; for then and only then will healing in the true sense of the word be possible.

And now to return to the subject of poisonous substances in general. There are mineral poisons, one of which is arsenic; copper, lead, phosphorus, tartar emetic, certain pulverised stones—these are all mineral poisons.

There are also plant poisons, for example, belladonna; also digitalis which comes from the red foxglove.

Thirdly, there are animal poisons—insect poisons, snake poisons. These include the very terrible poison of rabies, coming from a mad dog.

Distinction must therefore be made between mineral poisons, plant poisons and animal poisons. Each of them has a different effect. Take, for example, mineral substances like lead or copper—they all have poisonous effects; or sulphuric acid, nitric acid, phosphorus, etc. Such poisons can really only be studied when they have not been taken in quantities sufficient to cause immediate death. A strong dose of mineral poison kills the human being; weaker doses make him ill. And the most important thing of all is to be able accurately to observe how strong the effect of a poison must be to make a man ill. It is when the effects are only slight that we can best study how the poison works. And if illness is present, the right dose may succeed in restoring health.

When a man has taken a mineral poison—let us say, arsenic, or copper, or lead—the symptoms are severe nausea, retching, vomiting, pain in the stomach, violent colic and pains in the intestines. The human body tries all the time only to take in substances that it can really absorb and digest. That is why there is retching and vomiting the moment a man has taken a mineral poison. This is the self-defence put up by the body, but in most cases it is inadequate and then antidotes must be administered; we must see to it that an antidote with which the poison unites is introduced into the stomach and the intestines. If the poison gets into the stomach and the intestines, it takes hold of the body. But if an antidote is administered, poison and antidote unite and then the poison does not take hold of the body because it has wedded itself, so to speak, with the antidote. And then a strong emetic or purgative must be given.

What are the antidotes for slight mineral poisonings? Discussion of severe poisonings must, of course, be confined to medical circles. In cases of slight mineral poisoning a good antidote is immediately to swallow lukewarm water into which an egg has been beaten; in this way, fluid albumen reaches the stomach and the intestines. The poison unites with this fluid albumen and can be got rid of by vomiting or diarrhoea. When the poisoning is very slight, the same result can be achieved with tepid milk or also with certain oils extracted from plants. These are antidotes for mineral poisons—with the exception of phosphorus poisoning. If someone has been poisoned with phosphorus, plant-oils must not be given because they actually enhance the poisonous effect of the phosphorus. But all other mineral substances can be made to unite with oils, and then expelled.

What actually happens when there is poison in the stomach? Think of what I have just said. An egg has been beaten into lukewarm water and this surrounds the poison in the stomach. All the poisons I have named are also produced by the human organism itself. The human organism produces in itself a little lead, copper, phosphorus. Man produces within his organism all kinds of substances, but these substances must be produced in exactly the quantity required by the body. If lead is introduced, the body then contains too much lead. So we must ask: What is the function of lead in the human organism? If the body produced no lead, we should all be going about with rickets! Our bones would be flabby and soft. A rachitic child is one whose organism produces too little lead. The human body must contain neither too much nor too little lead. As a general rule the constitution of man is such that he produces the substances he needs in sufficient quantities. If he does not produce them he gets ill. Very well, then, if lead is introduced into the organism, what happens? What happens to the lead that man produces inwardly all the time? Just think of it. Even in childhood you begin to produce lead in your bodies. But lead can really never be found in the body in any perceptible quantity because it is immediately sweated out. If it were not sweated out, you would, as quite young children, have within you so much lead that its presence could be demonstrated; and as grown-ups, far from having soft bones, you would be going about with bones so hard and brittle that if knocked at any point they would fall to pieces. And so this tiny quantity of lead which the human being has within him, is all the time being produced and then sweated out. But if an excessive quantity finds its way into the body, it cannot immediately be sweated out again and it becomes a destructive agent. Very well—now we give water containing albumen. This is a deterrent to the injurious effects of the lead. And why? The reason why I am unable to sweat out the lead I have myself produced is that I also have albumen in my body. And when a baby is drinking the lukewarm mother's milk, one of the effects of this milk is that the child gets accustomed to sweat out the lead. Therefore lukewarm milk can also be given in a case of slight lead poisoning, and then the lead is induced to leave the body, either through vomiting or through sweating. The very last vestiges must always be got rid of by sweating.

So you see, man imitates what nature is doing all the time. The albumen that is always present in the human being dissolves the lead. If, therefore, I introduce too much lead into the stomach and then add albumen, I am really doing what the body is doing all the time. The effects of these mineral poisons must be nullified by something that contains life. It must always be something that has life, either albumen-water—the egg comes from the hen and has life—or lukewarm milk which has come from the cow and has life; or oils that come from the plants and have life. One must give something that contains life, something that still contains etheric life. And so, when there is mineral poisoning, the physical body is cured by means of the ether body. In cases of mineral poisoning the physical body is sending its forces with excessive strength into the ether body. Therefore we can say: mineral poisons cause the physical body to be active in the ether body, to make its way, somewhere in the organs, into the ether body. So you see, if I have too much lead in me and it is not got rid of by its antidote but passes over into the body, then immediately the whole physical body is driven into the ether body. The physical body is a dead body, the ether body is a body of life. But the ether body is killed by the physical body when the latter is driven into it with too much force.

If I have copper poisoning and do not at once succeed in rendering it innocuous in the stomach by an antidote, it passes on into the abdomen where the physical body proceeds to make too much headway into the ether body. Again there are injurious effects. All mineral poisons cause the physical body to trespass into the ether body. If I now give the antidote, something that derives from the ether body—albumen water, lukewarm milk and the like—the physical body is driven out of the ether body. Here we can see with exactitude what kind of processes go on in the human body.

And now what is there to say about plant poisons? When the poison is that of belladonna, or henbane, or digitalis, or thorn-apple, or some such plant, the following happens. Mineral poisons cause vomiting; the stomach and intestines are cast into tumult. But when plant poisons have been taken ... and taken in large quantities, alcohol and opium too work as plant poisons ... then things do not remain at the stage of nausea or vomiting, but the whole of the body is affected. With plant poisoning, hardly anything, to begin with, happens in the stomach, but lower down, in the intestines, diarrhoea sets in. Whereas mineral poisons give rise more to vomiting, plant poisons give rise more to diarrhoea, but there are further effects. The body swells up, becomes bluish, cramps and convulsions occur; the pupil of the eye expands, or it may also contract, as in opium poisoning, when it becomes tiny; in cases of other plant poisons the pupil is very much enlarged. These plant poisons take a deeper hold of the body. Mineral poisons only take hold of the physical body; plant poisons, because they derive from life, from ether substance, take hold of the ether body. And so we may say: plant poisons cause the ether body to trespass into the astral body. The process goes still more deeply into the body. Whereas mineral poisons drive the physical body at some point into the ether body, into the realm of life, plant poisons drive the life into the astral body—the realm of feeling, of perception. The consequence is that the person concerned is stupefied, feeling is dulled and deadened and the eyes, the very organs through which he is able to have fine and delicate perceptions, are attacked; the pupils enlarge or contract; the skin which is the organ of touch, is affected. Plant poisonings, you see, go more deeply into the body. And now, just as mineral poison is driven out of the ether body by something that derives from life, we must discover how the plant poison may be thrown out of the astral body. And there we must turn to plants in which the astral forces from the Cosmos, from the universe, have already taken hold.

The ordinary plants grow in the spring, last through the summer, wither away in the autumn. But think of trees: they do not wither away but live for a long, long time. That is because the astral forces come to them from outside and take a hold. In certain trees, this process is particularly strong; such trees do not, of course, become animals, for the plant-nature always predominates; but the astral forces take a very strong hold, particularly in the bark. Trees surround themselves with bark and the bark of oaks and willows is the most potent because it is there that the astral forces have taken the strongest hold. But all trees containing tannic acid, as it is called, are trees in which the astral forces have taken a strong hold. Consequently the juice that can be squeezed or extracted by boiling from the bark of willows or oaks is a useful antidote because with it one can drive out of the astral body what has trespassed into it through the plant poison. To a certain extent, too, both coffee and tea contain an acid of the kind that will help to expel the injurious agent from the astral body. Strong coffee and really good tea also have a counteracting effect upon plant poisons. We can see now that to drink black coffee with our meals is by no means a bad thing to do. Plants always contain poison in tiny quantities and when we drink black coffee we drive out of the astral body the injurious effects caused by the encroachment of the ether body. And this drinking of black coffee really means that every time we have introduced into the body something that makes it a little unhealthy, we get rid of what was contained in the food and has made too much headway into the astral body.

The right time to drink tea is during the taking of food because it actually works more strongly then and takes the astral body in hand. If tea is drunk during a meal it mingles with the digestive process and promotes digestion in that it frees the astral body which is occupied with the digestion. But if tea is drunk some time after a meal, it goes directly to the astral body and makes it too lively, too forceful.

Humanity has had a certain very sound instinct. The habit of drinking coffee fulfils a useful purpose, for it helps the astral body to extricate itself from what may be an injurious element. The body always has a slight tendency to develop poisons and for that reason man needs the weak antidotes contained in coffee. You know, too, that there are people who try to give a fillip to their digestion not only with black coffee but by adding a little brandy to the coffee. In the brandy itself there is something that works as a plant poison and this makes the astral body inoperative. The ether body becomes particularly strong when a man drinks brandy or any spirit of that kind. He feels comfortable, because he lets consciousness slip away he vegetates. When he imbibes strong spirits he lets himself sink into a plant-like condition and he has the feeling of comfort and well-being that is usually associated with sleep. In sleep, however, he has no consciousness of this well-being. If anyone were actually to feel a sense of wellbeing during sleep it would be because he is aware of the activity of the flesh. But in the ordinary way, when people are asleep they are unconscious of comfort or well-being. When they drink brandy it is a different matter because although they are awake the lower part of the body is sleepy, and in this condition, while the head is awake, they feel extremely comfortable. And so the drinking of spirits promotes a sense of animal-plant-like well-being in man.

Thirdly, there are the animal poisons: snake poison, different insect poisons, also poisons like that produced in a dog with rabies. Snake poisoning provides the best illustration here. If you are bitten by a snake, the poison goes into the blood where it does untold harm. But if you were to extract the poison from snakes and mix it with pepper or salt into food ... only that would be a senseless thing to do because snake poison has no taste ... I mean, if you were to do such a thing for amusement, your stomach would not be seriously affected! In the stomach it does not act as a poison. The same applies to other animal poisons, insect poisons, for example. But the poison of rabies gets into the saliva and from the saliva into the blood and therefore if it did get into the stomach it would have certain injurious effects, although nothing like as injurious as the poison from the bite of a mad dog. Rabies poison passes from the saliva into the blood. Speaking quite generally, therefore, it can be said that animal poisons work primarily in the blood, not in the digestive process.

When digestion begins, the in-taken foodstuffs pass, first of all, into the stomach—they are still physical, just as they were in the world outside. Plant poisons derive from the ether body and therefore are not entirely physical; they go more deeply into the body. All foodstuffs eventually reach the blood. Snake poison can be digested and when it passes from the digestion into the blood there are no ill effects. Now when food is in the stomach, the physical body is at work. When the food has reached the intestines, from then until the point where it is to pass into the blood, the ether body is at work; and the actual transition into the blood is brought about by the astral body. But within the blood, the Ego, the “I” is working. If, therefore, snake poison enters the blood, this causes the astral body to trespass into the field of the “I.” The effect of mineral poisons is that the physical body trespasses into the ether body. Plant poisons cause the ether body to trespass into the astral body. Animal poisons cause the astral body to trespass into the field of the “I.” Therefore with an animal poison the only thing to do is to expel it from the blood itself; because the “I” is the highest principle. The poison can only be expelled by something that is actually in the blood. In a case of rabies poisoning, therefore, the only thing to do is to take an animal and inject the poison into its blood. If the animal dies ... well, the poison is the cause of death; but if it does not die, then its blood is strong enough to fight this poison. If the serum is then extracted and injected into a human being who has rabies, something that is capable of fighting the poison is added to his blood and in this way one may possibly succeed in curing him This poison can only be got rid of by the direct antidote, produced in the blood itself. This sheds light on animal poisons in general. The human being himself produces slight animal poisons all the time. The faculties possessed by animals are due to the fact that they produce these poisons in themselves; if they did not, they would have no intelligence at all. The human being produces poisons -very similar to the animal poisons, especially in organs situated near the head—but again in tiny quantities of which the body can make use. If the poisons are produced too vigorously there may, of course, be an excess of such animal poisons in the organism. This is what happens, for example, in diphtheria. Diphtheria is caused by animal poisons which have been produced by the human being himself. Therefore diphtheria can be cured in a similar way—by injecting the poison into an animal who can resist it and then injecting the serum again into the human being. He then has in his blood something that can fight the poison.

This shows you that in nature there are not only useful but also injurious substances ... those that are injurious, however, also have their function. Mineral poisons are the same, essentially, as that with which, in a less potent form, man's ether body has to be dealing all the time. Plant poisons are the same as that with which the astral body has to be dealing all the time; and animal poisons are the same as that with which the “I” has to be dealing all the time. We can therefore say: Poisoning is going on in some degree all the time a man is awake—while he is asleep too—but this poisoning contains its own antidotes. The gist of the matter is that poisons and non-poisons alike must be present in nature in order that the whole economy of nature may go forward in the right way.

Now you will realise why I said (in a previous lecture) that the presence of formic acid is indispensable. Formic acid is being sent out into nature all the time from the ant-hills. Formic acid is present everywhere. The human being produces his formic acid himself, but nature needs the ants who produce and send out the formic acid. And if this formic acid were not produced, our earth could never be revitalised—it would simply die away.

In a human corpse there is a poison known as the virus of dead bodies. But in reality man has around him all the time a corpse that is producing poison. A corpse yields this particular virus and the physical body of a living man yields it too, but in the latter case the ether body, astral body and “I” are at work. These higher members are occupied all the time with this nascent poison; they absorb it as sustenance. If the corpse did not contain poison the living human being would not, in the real sense, be man. You will realise from this that when a man dies, something must have gone away from him, namely, the super-sensible members of his being. When the super-sensible members have departed, the poison is no longer destroyed; it remains. If, therefore, people were able to think correctly about why corpse-virus arises, they would say: the physical body has always produced this poison; there is no possible reason why it should not do so, for as physical body it is the same, no matter whether the man is dead or alive. But the super-sensible man who needs the poison for sustenance, has departed, and therefore the poison remains. This indicates how the super-sensible man is incorporated in the physical, in the material man. Modern science, however, for lack of proper thinking, cannot grasp it.

That, then, is what observation of the way in which poisons work can teach us as a general principle. It also shows us that when we are looking for a medicament in a case of illness, we must ask ourselves: How, exactly, does it work? If we notice that the astral body cannot work as it ought, is not in proper control of the physical and etheric bodies, it is necessary, in certain circumstances, to give the person a very tiny quantity of arsenic because that strengthens the astral body. If the “I” is not working properly, gout or rheumatism appear, because the “I” is too weak to dissolve the foodstuffs and then they make their way into the blood as foreign bodies. If in a case of gout or rheumatism we discover that this is what is happening, we must proceed to strengthen the “I.” This can be done by administering the right dose of insect poison. If a man is stung by a bee the same thing is achieved in a natural way and he may be cured.

In order to acquire a real knowledge of medicaments or remedies, we must ask: How does nature work upon the “I”? How does nature work upon the astral body? How does nature work upon the ether body? It is precisely by understanding super-sensible nature that we develop a knowledge of medicaments.

So you see, science in any domain really depends upon recognition of the super-sensible being of man.