The Rudolf Steiner Archive

a project of Steiner Online Library, a public charity

Spiritual Soul Instructions and Observation of the World
GA 52

I. The Eternal and the Transient in the Human Being

6 September 1903, Berlin

The object about which I will talk here is certainly one in which all people are interested. Who could say that he is not interested in the question of immortality with all his thoughts? We need only to realise that the human being thinking of death feels a horror. Even the few people who are weary of life and look for rest in death cannot get through this horror completely. One has tried to answer this question in the most different way. Remember, however, that nobody can speak about anything impartially in which he is interested. Will he be able to speak then impartially about this question which is of the deepest interest for his whole life? And, besides, you must take something else into consideration: how much does depend on it for the culture. The development of our whole culture depends on it how this question is answered. The standpoint of somebody to the cultural questions is quite different if he believes in the eternal of the human being.

One hears saying that it was wrong to give the human being this hope of a next world. The poor man would be put off until the next world and would be thereby prevented from creating a better life here. Others say that only in this way existence can generally be endured. If with such a matter the wishes of the human beings are considered so strongly, all the reasons are looked out for it. It would have mattered a little to the human being to prove that two times two are not four if his happiness had depended on this proof. Because the human being could not omit to let his wishes have a say in this question of immortality, it had to be put over and over again. Because the subjective feeling of happiness is involved in this question.

However, just this fact has made this question so suspicious to the modern natural sciences. And rightly so! Just the most significant men of this science expressed themselves against the immortality of the human being. Ludwig Feuerbach says: “one thought immortality first and then proved it.” Thus he suggests that the human being tried to find arguments because he wishes them. David Friedrich Strauss and recently Ernst Haeckel in his World Riddles express themselves in a similar way. If now I had to say something that violates the modern natural sciences, I would not be able to speak about this question. But just the admiration of Haeckel’s great achievements in his fields and for Haeckel as one of the most monumental spirits of the present time lets me take a stand in his sense against his conclusions. Today, something else than fighting against the natural sciences is my object.

Theosophy is not against the natural sciences, but goes with them. But, besides, it does not stop. It does not believe that we have gone so wonderfully far only in the 19th century; while during all centuries before unreason and superstition would have held sway, now truth has been brought to light only by the science of our time. If truth stood on such weak feet, one could have little confidence. However, we know that truth formed the core in the teachings of wisdom of Buddha, of the Jewish priests et cetera. It is the task of theosophy to search for this core in all different theories. But it also does not spare the science of the 19th century. Because this is in such a way, we are certainly allowed to deal with the question also from the standpoint of science. It can form the basis that way from which we start if we search for the eternal in the human being.

Feuerbach is certainly right with his remark quoted before if he turns against the method of the science of the last fourteen centuries. However, he is wrong concerning the wisdom of former times. Because the way to guide the human being to the cognition of truth in the ancient schools of wisdom was totally different. Only during the later centuries of Christianity the faith was demanded to which then the scholars produced the proofs. That was not the case in the mysteries of antiquity. That wisdom which was not disseminated just like that, which remained a possession of few people, which was delivered to the initiate by instructions of the priests in holy temple sites, had another avenue to lead their pupils to truth. They kept the knowledge secret to those who were not prepared. One would have regarded it as profaned if one had informed anybody without selection. One only regarded somebody as worthy who had developed his cultural life by means of long exercise to understand the truth in higher sense.

One tells in the traditions of Judaism that when once a rabbi pronounced something of the secret knowledge his listeners reproached him: “O old man, had you been quiet! What have you done! You bewilder the people.” — One saw a big threat betraying the mysteries if they were in everybody’s mouth and would be desecrated and distorted that way. Only in holy shyness one approached them. The probation was strict which the pupils of the mysteries had to go through. Our time can hardly imagine the severe probations which were imposed on the pupil. We find with the Pythagoreans that the pupils called themselves listeners. For years they are only silent listeners, and it is according to the spirit of this time that this silence extended up to five years. They are silent in this time. Silence, that is in this case: renunciation of any discussion, of any criticism. Today where the principle applies: “test everything and keep the best” — where everybody believes to be able to judge about everything where with the help of journalism everybody forms his judgment quickly also about that which he does not understand at all, one has no notion of that which one demanded from a pupil at that time. Every judgment should be quiet; one had to make oneself able only to take up everything in oneself. If anybody passes sentence without this precondition, starts practicing criticism, he rebels against any additional instruction. Somebody who understands something of it knows that he has to learn for years only and to let a long period pass. Today one does not want to believe this. But only somebody who has understood the matters internally gets to a correct judgment of his own.

At that time, it was not the task to teach faith to anybody by lessons; one led him up to the nature of the things. The spiritual eye was given him to behold; if he wanted, he could test it. Above all, the lessons were purifying ones; the purifying virtues were required from the pupil. He had to take off the sympathies and antipathies of the everyday life which are only justified there. Every personal wish had to be eradicated before. Nobody was introduced to the lessons who had also not taken off the wish of continual existence of his soul. That is why the sentence of Feuerbach does not hold good to this time. No, at first the confidence in the profane immortality was eradicated in the pupils, before they could progress to the higher problems. If you see it that way, you understand why the modern natural sciences turn against the teaching of immortality with a certain right. However, only so far.

David Friedrich Strauss says that the appearance would be contradictory to the idea of immortality. Now, a lot is contradictory to the appearance what an approved scientific truth is. As long as one judged the movement of the earth and the sun according to the appearance, one got no correct judgment about that. One recognised them correctly when one did no longer trust to the eye only. Perhaps, just the appearance is not at all this to which we have to keep in this question.

We have to realise: is it the eternal in the human being what we see being passed on or transforming itself? Or do we find it outside? The single flower blossoms and passes, but only that remains and lasts which leaves its stamp on every flower of the genus again. Just as little we find the eternal outside in the history of the states. What once constituted the external forms of the state has passed, what presented itself as a leading idea has remained.

Let us test how transient and eternal come to the fore in nature. You know that all substances of your bodies were not in you seven or eight years ago. What formed my body eight years ago is scattered in the world and has to fulfil quite different tasks. Nevertheless, I stand before you, the same which I was. If now you ask: what has remained of that which made an impression on the eye? — Nothing. That has remained what you do not see and what makes the human being a human being. What does remain of human facilities, of the states? The individuals who created them disappeared, the state has remained. Thus you see that we are wrong if we take the eye for the essential part which only sees the changes, while the essential part is the eternal. It is the task of the spiritual to understand this eternal. What I was fulfils other tasks. Also the substances which today form my body do not remain the same; they enter other connections and are that which constitutes my physical body today. The spiritual holds it together. If we retain this thought, we recognise the eternal in the human being.

In a different way the eternal appears in the animal realm, plant realm, and mineral realm. But also there we can look at the permanent. If we crush a crystal to powder, for example cooking salt, dissolve it in water and allow it to crystallise again, the parts take on their characteristic shape again. The creative power being inherent in them was the permanent; it has remained like a germ to awake to new work if the cause is given to it. We also see from the plant countless seeds originating, from which new plants arise if they are sowed to the fields. The whole creative power rested invisibly in the seed. This force was able to wake the plants to new life.

This goes up through the animal and human realms. Also the human figure comes from a tiny cell. However, it does not lead us to that which we call human immortality. Nevertheless, if we look closer, we also find something similar. Life develops from life; the invisible stream goes through. However, nobody is probably content with the immortality of the type. The principle of humanness goes in it from generation to generation. But it is only one of the ways to preserve the permanent. There are still other types where the interplay comes to the fore. We take an example from the plant realm to illustrate this.

Hungarian wheat which was brought to Moravia and sown there becomes soon similar to the indigenous one there. The law of adaptation comes into force here. Now it also keeps the once acquired qualities in future. We see how something new happens: the concept of development. The complete world of organisms is subordinate to this law. An idea of development forms the basis after which the imperfect living beings transform themselves to more perfect ones. They change their external constitutions; they receive other organs, so that that which remains preserved develops progressively.

You see that we come to a new kind of the permanent. If the naturalist explains a form of life today, he does not give himself the answer of the naturalists of the 18th century who said: there are as many types of living beings as God created once. — This was an easy answer. Everything that had originated was brought to life by a creation miracle. The natural sciences of the 19th century freed us in their area of the concept of the miracle. The physical forms owe their origin to the development. Today we understand how the animals transformed themselves up to the monkey to higher forms of life. If we consider the different animal forms as temporal sequence, we recognise that they were not created as those, but came into being developing apart. However, we see even more.

The flowers of some plants possibly experience such substantial changes that one would not believe that they belong to the same type. Nature simply makes jumps, and thus it also lets arise one type from the other under given circumstances. But in every type something remains that reminds of the preceding type; we understand them only apart, not from themselves, but from their ancestors. If one pursues the temporal development of the types, one understands what stands in space before us. We see the development through millions of years and know that in millions of years everything looks differently again. The substances are exchanged perpetually; they change perpetually. In thousands of years the monkey developed from the marsupial. But something remains that connects the monkey with the marsupial. It is the same that holds the human being together. It is the invisible principle that we saw as something permanent in ourselves which was active millennia ago and works on among us even today. The external resemblance of the organisms corresponds to the principle of heredity.

Now, however, we also see how the shapes of the living beings are not only hereditary, but also change. We say: something is inherited, something changes; there is something transient and something remains preserved in the change of times.

You know that the human being corresponds to the physical qualities of his ancestors. Figure, face, temperament, also passions go back to the ancestors. I owe the movement of the hand to an ancestor. Thus the law of heredity projects from the plant and animal realms into the human world. Can this law be applied now in the same way also to all fields of the human world? We must search for own laws in every field. Would Haeckel have done his great discoveries in biology, would he have limited himself to examine the brains of the different animals only chemically?

The great laws exist everywhere, but in every field in own way. Transfer this question to the human life, to the field in which the human beings particularly believe in miracles still today. Everybody knows today that the monkeys developed from more imperfect forms of life. However, people have an exceptional belief in miracles concerning the human soul. We see different human souls; we know that it is impossible to explain the soul by means of physical heredity. Who may explain, for example, the genius of Michelangelo from his ancestors? Who may explain his head form, his figure? Who may get good explanations from the pictures of his ancestors? What points in them to the genius of Michelangelo? This does not only apply to the genius, it applies to all human beings in the same way even if one chooses the genius to prove clearly that his qualities are not to be owed to the physical heredity. Goethe himself felt in such a way speaking in the famous verses for what he has to thank his parents:

From the father I got the stature
And the serious way of life,
From mummy I got my cheerful nature
And the desire of telling stories.

These are, even the gift of telling stories, basically external qualities. However, he could not derive his genius from father or mother; otherwise one would have to sense this also in the parents. We may have to thank our parents for temperament, inclinations, and passions. We cannot search for that which is the most essential of the human being which makes him his real individuality with his bodily ancestors. Our natural sciences only know the external qualities of the human being and try to investigate them. Thus they come to the belief in miracles of the human soul. They investigate the constitution of the human brain. Are they able to explain the human soul from the physical constitution of the brain et cetera? Is that the reason why Goethe’s soul is a miracle? Our aesthetics wanted to regard this point of view as the only correct one which one is allowed to take concerning the genius, and think that the genius would lose all magic by explaining. But we cannot be content with this view.

Let us try to explain the nature of the soul in the same way as we investigated the botanical and animal species; that is to explain how the soul develops from lower to higher levels. Goethe’s soul stems also from an ancestor like his physical body. How did anybody want to explain, otherwise, the difference between Goethe’s soul and that of a savage? Every human soul leads back to its ancestors from which it develops. And it will have successors who come into being from it. However, this advancement of souls does not coincide with the law of physical heredity. Every soul is the forefather of later soul successors. We will understand that the law of heredity which holds sway in space cannot be applied to the soul in the same way.

However, the lower principles last beside the higher ones. The chemical-physical laws which hold sway in space determine the external organism. Also we are spun in a web with our bodies in this life. Being in the middle of the organic development, we are subject to the same laws like animal and plant. Regardless of that, the law of the psychic refining takes place. Thus Goethe’s soul must have been there once in another form and has developed from this soul form, regardless of the external form, as the seed develops to another type, depending on the law of transformation. However, like the plant has something remaining which outlasts the transformation, also that which remained preserved in the soul has entered into a germinating state, like the grain in the top soil to appear in a new form, when the conditions have come. This is the teaching of reincarnation. Now we understand the naturalists better.

How should that remain which was not there once? But what is the remaining preserved? We cannot consider that which constitutes the personality of the human being like his temperament, his passions, as the remaining preserved; only the actually individual which was before its physical appearance and remains preserved, hence, also after death. The human soul moves into the body and leaves it again to create a new body after the time of maturity again and to enter in it. What has descended from physical causes passes with our personality at death; we have to look at that for which we cannot find physical causes as the effect of a former past. The permanent part of the human being is his soul which works from the deepest inside and survives all changes.

The human being is a citizen of eternity because he carries something eternal in himself. The human mind feeds itself from the eternal laws of the universe, and only thereby the human being is able to understand the eternal laws of nature. He would only recognise the transient in the world if he were not himself a remaining preserved one. That remains from that which we are today which we incorporate into our imperishable being. The plants are transformed under given conditions. Also the soul has adapted itself; it has taken up a lot in itself and has improved itself. We carry into another incarnation what we experience as something eternal. However, if the soul enters a body for the first time, it resembles a blank sheet, and we transfer on it what we do and take up in ourselves. As true as the law of physical heredity holds sway in nature, as true the law of mental heredity holds sway in the spiritual realm. And as little the physical laws apply to the spiritual realm, as little the laws of physical heredity holds sway over the continued existence of the soul. The old sages, who did not demand belief, before they had founded it by knowledge, were fully aware of this fact.

How is the relationship of the soul in its present condition to its former condition? — This question, which could suggest itself upon you, I would like to answer to you in the following way. The souls are in perpetual development. Differences thereby arise between the single souls. A higher individuality can only develop if it experiences many incarnations. In the usual state of consciousness the human beings have no memory of the former conditions of their souls, but because this memory is not yet attained. The possibility of that is given. Nevertheless, Haeckel speaks of a kind of unaware memory which goes through the world of the organisms and without which some natural phenomena were inexplicable. Hence, this memory is only a question of development. The human being thinks consciously and acts accordingly, while the monkey acts unconsciously. As he has risen gradually from the condition of consciousness of the monkey to conscious thinking, in the same way he remembers the former incarnations later with progressive perfection of his consciousness. As well as Buddha says of himself: I look back at countless incarnations , it is true that in future every human being has the memory of a number of former incarnations if this ego-consciousness has developed with every individual human being, as well as it is sure that it exists with single advancers already today. Becoming more perfect in the course of time, more and more human beings will have this ability.

This is the concept of immortality as the theosophist understands it. This concept is new and old at the same time. Once those have taught that way who did not want to teach faith only but knowledge. We do not want to believe and then to prove, but we want to make the human beings able to search for the proofs independently and to find them. Only somebody who wants to co-operate in the development of his soul attains it. He walks from life to life to perfection, because neither the soul came into being at birth nor it disappears at death.

One of the objections which are often made against this view is that it makes the human being unable to cope with life. Let me still go into it with some words. No, theosophy does not make unable to cope with life, but more capable, just because we know what the permanent and what the transient is. Of course, somebody who thinks that the body is a dress which the soul only puts on and takes off again as it is sometimes said becomes unable to cope with life. But this is a wrong picture which should be used by no researcher. The body is not a dress, but a tool for the soul. A tool the soul uses to work with it in the world. And he who knows the permanent and invigorates it in himself uses the tool better than somebody who only knows the transient. He strives for invigorating the eternal in himself by means of constant activity. He carries this activity over to another life, and he becomes more and more capable. This picture lets the thought disappear to nothing that the human being becomes unfit to cope with life because of knowledge. We are able to work even in a more competent and more permanent way if we recognise that we work not only for this one short life but for all future times.

The strength which arises from this consciousness of eternity I may express using the words which Lessing put on the end of his significant treatise about The Education of the Human Race: “is not the whole eternity mine?”