Donate books to help fund our work. Learn more→

The Rudolf Steiner Archive

a project of Steiner Online Library, a public charity

Supersensible Knowledge
GA 55

VIII. Insanity in the Light of Spiritual Science

31 January 1907, Berlin

Spiritual science more than any other science is in a position to say something about so-called spiritual or mental illness. The name is actually misleading; one cannot speak of the spirit being ill. Furthermore, there is widespread confusion among lay people as well as professionals, mainly because of the way such illnesses are presented in popular literature. The descriptions are thought of as the reality. Megalomania, persecution-mania, religious-mania are spoken of, but these terms only point to symptoms. No one can become insane by being occupied with religious ideas. Yet the most curious statements are put forward, for example that the discord between old and modern world conceptions was the cause of Friedrich Hölderlin's1Friedrich Hölderlin (1770–1843) was among the greatest of German lyric poets. His images were usually derived from classical Greek themes. illness. The illness from which he suffered would still have overtaken Hölderin even if he had not been a poet; though in that case he would have expressed himself differently.

When a deeply religious person becomes mentally ill, his religious ideas become distorted. Had he been steeped in materialistic ideas, then they would have become distorted. The cause of mental illness is deeply rooted in human nature where it must be sought. All the medical professions can offer in this field are hypotheses, doubt and conjecture. It is indeed difficult from a materialistic viewpoint to come to any conclusive ideas in this realm. Many illnesses that in fact belong in this category are not regarded to do so by the medical profession, for example, querulousness, religious sectarianism and fanaticism. People of the latter kind are possessed by certain hallucinary ideas which, because they have great suggestive power over weaker personalities, can result in veritable epidemics of fanaticism.


The question may be asked: How is it possible for insanity to establish itself in human nature? To answer this question we must turn our attention to the four lower members of a person's being: the physical, etheric and astral bodies, and the “I.” The “I” works on the other three members, especially on the astral body, ennobling and purifying it and by compelling it not to follow urges and impulses blindly. The “I” also works on the ether body, particularly through higher impulses, especially of an artistic nature. Under this influence the astral body divides into two parts, one that is purified and one that is not. This occurs also in the ether body, and gradually the purified parts become ever larger. The “I” also works on the physical body, but unconsciously. Only when a high level of initiation is reached can work on the physical be done consciously.

To answer our question, we must also bear in mind the fact of repeated lives. When we go to sleep something takes place that is similar to what occurs at death. When we go to sleep the astral body and the “I” separate from the physical body, and all cravings and sensations sink into dark oblivion. Only the physical and etheric bodies remain on the bed. At death the ether or life body too separates from the physical body, and in the hours that follow, while the human being is still connected with the ether body, there passes, in mighty pictures before the soul, the whole of a person's past life. This lasts until the ether body also separates from that individual and disperses into the general worldether.

However, only the substance of the ether body separates from the person. Throughout future times an essence, like a memory-picture, remains with the astral body and the “I.” These first of all pass over into the condition called “kamaloca” or the region of desire, where everything within the astral body that still clings to earthy life is separated from it. What is not yet ennobled detaches itself; the rest accompanies the soul into the future. This also applies to the physical body, but only to a very slight extent, and only in the case of highly evolved individuals. When the incarnation that will follow draws near, the human being unites once more with what was left behind in order to continue its purification. The more often a human being incarnates, the stronger becomes his character and his moral sense, and the more numerous and greater the talents and abilities.

What we need to bear in mind above all, if we are to understand how insanity arises, is the Hermetic axiom: As above, so below; as below, so above. A smiling face immediately conveys cheerfulness, tears inner sadness. Cheerfulness and sadness we must in this instance see as the “above”, and laughter and tears, that is, the material expression of cheerfulness and sadness, as representing the “below.” When someone has been rightly brought up and educated, he Looks at life with different eyes. To him a flower is seen as the expression of the Earth-Spirit's sadness or cheerfulness. For him this is not just a poetic notion, anymore than the soul is a poetic notion. The spirit of the earth is the foundation of earth existence and is related to it as the above. Everything material is a condensed spirit just as ice is condensed water; as ice can be melted to become water, so can matter be transformed into spirit.

We distinguish in human beings the following physical components that correspond to their higher, that is, their above members: first the purely physical, what is built according to purely physical laws, especially the sense organs. What builds a crystal could also build the human body, though it would be an organism without life. Second, we have everything connected with digestion, growth and propagation built by the ether body; third, the nervous system (brain and spinal cord) built by the astral body; fourth, the blood circulation, of which the "I," living in the blood, is the architect. Thus, we have:

Blood CirculationI
Nervous SystemAstral Body
PropagationEther Body
Purely PhysicalPhysical Body

Everything physical is subject to the laws of physical heredity, but so too are the organs of propagation, the nervous system and the blood circulation. The individuality of a human being must unite with a physical body that is subject to these laws. This means that the “I,” together with the ennobled parts of the astral and ether body, and perhaps part of the physical body, must establish harmony between itself and what is inherited. This usually happens through the fact that the spiritual, by transforming itself, adapts to the physical. But what happens when that is not possible, when for example an astral body encounters a nervous system to which it cannot adjust, and therefore cannot make use of?

Delusion caused by visual defect is not regarded as a mental illness. A book by Moritz Benedict,2Moritz Benedict (1835–1920) was a criminologist. the criminologist and anthropologist, though not written from a spiritual scientific viewpoint, has much of interest to say on this subject. He suffered from a partial cataract in the left eye that impaired his sight. He describes his own experiences: When in the dark he looked in a certain direction and saw spectres of a peculiar kind; he was once so startled that he grabbed a weapon.

The explanation for this kind of phenomenon is as follows: A healthy person is not conscious of the inner constituents of his eye but, if there are irregularities, he becomes aware of them in such a way that they appear as reflected forms, approaching from outside. However, this is something that holds true also for the rest of a person's organism. Normally we are only conscious of what comes to us from outside, not of what goes on inside. When the "above" is in harmony with the “below,” one is not at all conscious of inner processes. But, if for instance, the brain is clumsy and sluggish so that the astral body is unable to make use of it, then the astral body suffers disturbance. It projects itself outwardly just as it does when the eye is impaired. It becomes conscious of itself, and feelings of hopes, wishes and cravings, that is, the attributes of the astral body, are projected and appear as forms approaching from outside. Madness, querulousness, hysteria—all conditions in which a person cannot make his feelings agree with what goes on around him—belong to this category. The ether body can also suffer disturbance through inner abnormalities. It contains our mental pictures of the outside world. As long as it is not conscious of itself it receives these pictures in their true form, but if they become projected outwards due to a disturbance of the ether body, the result is delusions and Paranoia. When that aspect of the physical body that should bring about the accord with the physical environment becomes disturbed, becomes conscious of itself, it leads to idiocy. A human being can become what is called “demented” when the physical body is too ponderous, too unwieldy, so that the astral body is unable to master it. If on the other hand the physical organs are too mobile so that they fail to express the soul's intentions, the result is paralysis.

A multitude of such cases exist. They may be due to any number of causes. This is true especially of delusions; they can arise from either projections or a sickening of the astral body. The effect may be so strong that delirium sets in; such attacks imprint themselves in the ether body and give rise to delusions. These imprints are like scars from the wounds in the astral body, and are much more difficult to heal than the delirium itself. Glaucoma is often a forerunner of madness.

We must now remind ourselves that human beings go through a threefold birth, first that of the physical body, then at the time of the change of teeth the ether body is born, and at puberty the astral body. It may happen that the disharmony between the “above and the “below” only becomes noticeable at the time when the astral body is born, because up to that time the astral covering that protected it maintained the harmony. Once it is born the astral body is left to itself, and the discord with the physical body becomes apparent. The form of mental illness that results comes to expression, for the young person suffers from hallucinations, and will often give one and the same answer to a variety of questions. This is called “weak-mindedness or imbecility.” It does not come about suddenly, but is gradually prepared from the age of twelve onwards. The preliminary signs are depression, tiredness, argumentativeness, headaches, problems with digestion and with sleep. The condition is extremely difficult to cure; and it is sad that most parents punish their children for such illness, mistaking it for naughtiness.

The spirit itself is always healthy; it cannot be ill, but when it can find no harmony with the “below” it becomes distorted. A face reflected in a convex mirror is distorted, but no one assumes that the real face must therefore also be distorted. The various forms of insanity are the distorted reflections of the spirit in the physical. Consequently, it is quite useless to attempt a cure by means of abstract logical reasoning; such methods have no effect whatever. Nothing is more remote from concentrated spirit than shadowy abstract logic—and our bodily organs are concentrated spirit, albeit not our spirit—whereas passionate, imaginative, pictorial ideas and images are more akin to spirit, and are capable of driving out the distorted images that cause the condition. Such counter-images must be provided by the strength and power of another personality. An individual cannot through explanations convince the ill person that he is illogical, whereas vivid, strong counter-images will be effective. For example, the power of the other's personality must prove to the sick person that he can, after all, do what he thought was beyond him.

In the realm of so-called spiritual or mental illnesses, natural and spiritual science must work together. What is needed is detailed research so that the counter-images applicable in specific cases are always available. These too are not normal in the usual sense, as they must, to be effective, swing towards the opposite extreme.

Spiritual science is neither remote from life nor passive; it aims to contribute to practical life. To be effective in the world one must of necessity learn to understand the spiritual forces that constitute its foundation. If we are to understand the nature of what is physical, we must recognize that the material world is an imprint of the spiritual world. To Hellenbach who says: “What possible concern of ours is all this spirit-rabble?” we must reply: “Well, as human rabble is our concern, and as human beings are connected with the spiritual world, we wish to find the bridge between the two.