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The Rudolf Steiner Archive

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Supersensible Knowledge
GA 55

X. Stages in Man's Development in the Light of Spiritual Science

28 February 1907, Berlin

The saying above the ancient Greek Temple: “Know Thyself,” has resounded to mankind down the ages like a summons to earnest self-introspection. And indeed it expresses one of the greatest truths, but even more than other great truths it is all too easily misunderstood. The real meaning points to something powerful and universal. Originally it neither suggested that a person should contemplate his ordinary everyday self, nor expect to find the sum total of all knowledge within his own being. Rightly understood, the call is for knowledge of the higher self.

But where is a person's higher self to be found? We can by means of a comparison make clear where the higher self exists, and what the saying means: We know for certain that without eyes we would not perceive light; it is, however, equally certain that we would not have eyes had the light flooding all space not first created them. Out of an originally lower organism without sight, knowing only darkness, the light enticed forth the eyes. Hence the truth of Goethe's saying: “The eyes are created by the light for the light.” However, the purpose of the eyes is not to perceive themselves. From the point of view of the eye, we must say that they fulfill their task all the better the more they forget themselves and recognize their creator—the light.

The true mission of the eyes is to forget their inner being and recognize what created them, that is what to the eyes is the higher self—the light. The situation is the same in regard to a person's ordinary self; that too is nothing but an organ, a tool; and self-knowledge becomes ever greater the more this self can forget itself and become aware of the spirit-light, existing in the eternal world, that created our spiritual eyes and continually does so. Therefore, self-knowledge rightly understood means self-development. This we must keep in mind and see as background to today's lecture, which concerns the subject of self-knowledge in the highest sense of the word.

Taking all aspects of an individual's nature into consideration, let us look at the way he evolves during his life between birth and death. In so doing, we must not forget that when a person starts his life an earth he is not a newly created entity; he brings certain qualities with him. Repeated earth lives are behind him, during which the fundamental character of his individuality has already been established. We must consider a person's existence after death if we are to recognize what he brings with him through birth. That existence will reveal what he has retained throughout the time between death and new birth, and so brings with him into a new life.

Let us remind ourselves that at death the human being leaves behind only the physical corpse. The main difference between death and sleep is that the human being asleep possesses a physical and an etheric body; only the astral body and what we call “I” are lifted out. Just as an architect is needed to create a building, as the bricks do not come together of themselves, so do the physical forces need the ether body as an inner architect. The ether body holds together the physical matter and forces from birth to death. At every moment it prevents the chemical combinations from falling apart. But at death it leaves the physical body, which consequently is left behind as the decaying corpse. Thus, in sleep it is only the “I” and astral body, the bearer of pleasure and pain, cravings and sentiments, that leaves, whereas in death the ether body also leaves and remains with the astral body and the “I” for a short time. This is an important moment in a person's existence. During that short time there passes before the human soul with lightning speed a mighty memory tableau of his whole past life. This tableau is like a painting, and just as we do not feel the stab of the dagger depicted in a painting, so do we not experience either pleasure or pain in what the tableau portrays. We stand before our past life as objective observer.

Then comes the time when the ether body withdraws and disperses into the general world ether. However, something of the ether body remains, which is like an extract or a summary of the past life. The tableau becomes indistinct and dissolves, but the extract remains united with a person throughout his further journey. In fact, an essence or extract also remains of the physical body, which is of course not something that can be seen with physical sight; it is like a center of energy that remains with the ether body; it is what gives the physical body its human form.

After the ether body has dissolved, the astral body still remains. An individual now passes through a condition during which he gradually adjusts to being without a physical environment. We must realize that everything a person has experienced as lower enjoyment clings to the astral body. The physical body has no cravings; it experiences no pleasure, but is the instrument that enables the astral body to obtain enjoyment. Take the case of a gourmet. It is not the physical body that enjoys the food, but the astral body that uses the physical body as a tool to enjoy it. The craving remains after the physical body is laid aside, but now the tool for obtaining satisfaction is lacking. This indicates the nature of the astral body's existence after death, comparable to someone suffering thirst in a region for the length and breadth of which there is no water. Instincts, cravings and passions are now felt by the astral body as burning thirst, not because the objects of its desires are not there, but because the organs are lacking through which satisfaction can be obtained. That is why religion speaks of the ordeal by fire that human beings undergo after death.

The human being remains in kamaloca for as long as the astral body retains a longing for the physical body. Gradually it frees itself of its dependence on what surrounded it when clothed in a physical body. Someone who has purified his passions already during life, so that instead of coarser enjoyments he takes pleasure in what is beautiful, artistic and spiritual, will shorten his time kamaloca. On the other hand, those who only find pleasure in things for which a physical tool is needed will remain a long time in the region of burning thirst. Eventually what is not purified falls away like a kind of astral corpse, comparable to what is left behind of the physical and etheric bodies. The more of the astral body a person has purified, the more he is able to retain and add to the extracts from the physical and etheric bodies.

With these three extracts, a person passes into the essentially spiritual world where everything the “I” has experienced and has acquired during earthly life is perfected. Some people enter life possessing great talents, discernible already in childhood, and only waiting to be brought out. A person can bring such talents because his earthly experiences were transformed into abilities during his sojourn in Spirit Land.

In the course of each life on earth, a person adds something new to the extracts of his three bodies. If a person is born with special talents, it shows that he has made good use of his former lives. He has as it were added many pages to the record of his experiences and achievements. When he enters a new life he receives a physical body from physical ancestors. The core of his being, bringing the fruits of former experiences, is drawn to a family that can provide the physical characteristics he needs for making use of the already acquired capabilities. The characteristics a person inherits do not determine his actions or his abilities; all they provide is the tool with which to express them. However, the tool is essential. A master pianist needs an instrument, and so does the incarnating individuality. If a person is to express himself properly in the physical world, the new body that clothes him must be the right tool. This tends to give rise to the mistaken view that everything is inherited. Heredity certainly plays a part, but only insofar as the incarnating individuality feels drawn to parents that can provide him with the most suitable tool.

Everything as yet not purified that was left behind at different stages gathers again about the person. He must receive it back in order to continue the purification of the being.

We have already discussed various aspects of what takes place during the first half of a person's life. In order to see how his fate and fortune in later life depends upon the way his physical, etheric and astral bodies develop during the first half, we must repeat some aspects connected with school life and education that reach further completion in the second half. This is an important issue, and it is essential to recognize certain significant laws. These are laws that apply in general, though they may become modified in various ways. In order to adjust properly to life and recognize one's destination ever more clearly, the working of these laws must be understood.

Let us begin with birth. We know that-at physical birth only the physical body is fully born. The organs could develop before birth because the embryo is completely protected by the surrounding maternal sheath. Only when this is pushed aside is this body exposed to the physical elements. The ether body is not born yet, even less the astral body; they are still surrounded by an etheric and an astral sheath. These sheaths, visible only to spiritual sight, are not part of a person's own nature, but they envelop and protect him. At the change of teeth in the seventh year when the ether body is born, the etheric sheath is pushed aside as was the maternal body at physical birth. And only at puberty is the astral body born and fully exposed to the influences of the external world.

It must be realized that in the first seven years of life only what is described as the essence or extract of the former physical body is freed; this is what gives the physical its form, guiding its structural development. The organs grow larger, but their shape and function are inherent in them. It is of the greatest importance that everything in the environment of the growing child enables the physical structure to unfold in the best possible way. The essential aspect of this period can be summed up in two significant words: imitation and example. At this age the child Imitates everything that goes on or exists around him. It is this activity of imitation that coaxes the inner organs to develop their inherent form. The brain of a seven-year old may still be incomplete, but the foundation for the child's further development is laid, and any lack cannot be made up later. The appearance of the second teeth marks the end of the activity of the physical principle, which is the principle of structure and form. The teeth are the outwardly visible sign that the bones and joints and also the softer organs have consolidated. The influence of light is what entices the power of sight to the surface in the eyes.

As already mentioned, it is best not to give children perfect dolls and similar toys. A healthy child will only get pleasure from it for a short while. A knot in a table napkin with indications of eyes and ears will provide far more pleasure; this is because the child's fantasy becomes active in providing what the doll lacks. This encourages the development of the inner Organs; they become strong, as a muscle becomes strong when activated. The environment should provide happiness, pleasure and enjoyment because it calls up in the child inner feelings and activity that flow like strong up-building forces through its organs. A bad environment at this time in the child's life does more to harm the organs than anything else. The notion, based on false asceticism, that the child benefits from being accustomed to an austere, lackluster existence is utterly wrong. As regards nourishment, if the child is given the right food it will develop a liking for what is beneficial, whereas wrong food will cause sickness.

Through spiritual science we can gain insight into what would be done at every age. Thus, we must be clear that as the physical principle is at work in the first seven years, and should be left undisturbed, our primary concern must be to do what is right and healthy for the child's bodily nature. Regarding nutrition it must be realized that there exists a spiritual bond between mother and child, especially during the early years; the mother who breast-feeds her child pays heed to this relationship. The milk contains more than its physical, chemical components; spiritually it is related to the child. It is evident from spiritual research that the milk issues from the mother's ether body. Because the child's own ether body is not born yet, it can at first only tolerate what has been prepared by another ether body. Statistical evidence shows that of those who die in infancy, 16 to 20 percent have been breast-fed by their own mother, while 26 to 30 percent have not. This is an indication of the close affinity between the ether bodies. The affinity expresses itself physically in family likeness. Traits and characteristics pointing to the line of descent develop and become established during the first years.

What is of paramount importance from the seventh to the fourteenth year can also be summed up in two significant words: emulation and authority. This is the time when it is essential that the evolving human being can look up to someone who for him or her incorporates all that is good, beautiful and wise. To the child this person must be the embodiment of everything contained in maxims and precepts. Preaching moral axioms has far less effect than presenting to the child ideal examples to emulate—examples showing the path to Olympus. To be able at this age to look up to someone with feelings of deepest reverence and respect is of great significance for the rest of a person's life. What matters here is of course the emulation. This is why the teaching of history should be so conducted that figures illustrating wisdom and strength of character are brought before the child. From descriptions of the characteristics of a folk or a race, one proceeds to descriptions of individuals where ancestry no longer plays a part. Emulation of relatives widens to become emulation of strangers. The child's horizon expands through awareness of other people; the ether body also widens beyond its own race and clan.

Whereas before the change of teeth, features that show family likeness become defined, now when the child's life widens beyond the family circle, his gestures, that is, what is distinctly individual, become characteristic. At this time the etheric sheath dissolves. Influence can now be brought to bear an the ether body. This influence should come from people who, because of what they themselves are, can bring out the attributes stored in the child's ether body. Furthermore, now that the ether body, after the seventh year, is no longer restricted, those basic traits, the fruits brought over from former incarnations, begin to develop. Consequently, a true principle of education demands that the educator should now, as it were, stand back and consider just what it is the child has brought over; for thanks to the freed ether body the organs should now become stronger and increase in size.

Up to the seventh year physical forces elaborated and plastically formed the organs, but now our task is to instill into these organs, as they grow larger, all the attributes related to the ether body, such as conscience, energy and morality. Everything we bring the child must be pictorial and imbued with a pure spiritual delight in the world, for these are qualities that must be so deeply imprinted that they become part of the ether body. If the human being is to develop a strong character, his ether body must be able to evolve unimpeded. The educator must at this time say to himself: What I am dealing with is not something to be molded arbitrarily; I may do irrevocable harm unless I pay heed to what the child has brought over from the ether body of his former life. This is also the reason why it is important that physical exercises produce a feeling in the child of growing strength and increase of stature. The child should experience a sensation of growing, not just physically, but morally. These feelings work plastically on the ether body, as the physical principle did earlier on the physical body.

The astral attributes which an individual brings with him develop while the astral body is still surrounded by its astral sheath, as did the physical organs while still surrounded by the maternal body before birth. Only when puberty is reached does the astral body become free, that is, become open to external influence. Only now should appeal be made to the power of judgment and abstract thought. Before puberty the child should not be obliged to form personal opinions and judgments. The ability to do so is not present until the astral body is born. Before puberty the child should be able to look up to those with authority and obtain from them the important beliefs and opinions; to be obliged to formulate personal opinion at this time only leads to astral distortions. Not only is it absurd for anyone so young to have opinions about this or that belief or confession, but it is also detrimental to healthy development. It is a sign that something important has been neglected in his education. It shows the child has not had the opportunity to develop that great inner strength that matures under the influence of the right kind of authority. At this time, from the fourteenth year onwards, when the astral body is born, slowly and gradually the power of judgment begins to ripen and leads to convictions. Artistic accomplishment, religious and moral feelings now set their stamp on the countenance. A child now faces the world as a distinct individual. This gradual process lasts up to the twenty-first or twenty-third year.

It is an important moment when at the time of puberty awareness of other people as individuals awakens. Just as: “All that is transient but as symbol is sent,” so too is the becoming aware of the other sex symbolic. Only now does the human being attain a personal relationship to the world; thus, love of the individual awakens. Up to then the relationships are more universally human, whereas now personal judgment plays a part. The astral extract a person brought over into life is now freed and able to develop. It comes to expression as high ideals, beautiful hopes and expectations of life, all of which are forces that are essential to human beings. A person's development will take the right course if, rather than having something external imposed upon him, his inherent inclinations and talents are brought out during his school days. Ideals are not simply there; they originate in forces that are astir within youth which at this time strive for expression. Nothing is worse for later life than an absence of feelings of great hopes and expectations; right up into the twenties, they constitute real forces. The more we are able to bring out a person's inner inclinations and talents brought over from former lives, the more we benefit his development. Not until the twenty-third year does this come to an end; then a person is ready to begin his “years of apprenticeship” (Wanderjahre). Only now is the “I” born; only now does a person face the world as an independent personality.

Now is the “I,” as a result of collaboration with his four members, in direct contact with the world. The fruits of former life experiences no longer have to be inwardly developed; an individual is ripe to face the reality of the world. If a person is obliged to do so earlier, his best talents and abilities are spoiled; the essence brought over as forces is deadened. It is a sin against youth if the person is exposed to the prosaic aspects of life at an earlier age. Now a person matures; the time has come when that individual is truly able to learn from life. He approaches his “years of mastery” (Meister-jahren) between his twenty-eighth and thirty-fifth years. However, these time limits must not be taken too rigidly.

About the thirty-fifth year a human being reaches the middle of life. Those with spiritual insight have always regarded this age as extremely important. They have recognized that, while up to the twenty-first year a person evolves, the talents and abilities contained as predispositions in his three bodies—and up to the twenty-eighth year what the world offers him—now at the age of thirty-five he begins to work on his three bodies. First of all a person strengthens the astral body. Up till now the world has taught him, but now his judgment begins to carry weight with his fellowmen. It would be well if his opinions have not been so far too definite, too conclusive; they should not become consolidated until about the age of thirty-five. From now on the astral body becomes ever denser; if up till now the person has been a learner, he or she can now become an adviser. A person's judgments have significance and are taken into account when problems are in the balance. The apprentice has become counselor.

After the thirty-fifth year and beyond, the astral body influences the “I,” the blood and the nervous system; it acts on growth and has a stabilizing, consolidating effect that results in a certain firmness. What a human being absorbs in his life of thoughts and feelings of a spiritual nature comes to expression as cultural interest and courage. One could therefore also call this “a period when the systems of blood and nerves are elaborated.” It all comes to an end physically when the ether body begins to withdraw its activity from the external aspect of the physical body, at about the thirty-fifth year. It is also the reason why a human then ceases to grow; a person solidifies, fat begins to be deposited; the strength of the muscles diminishes. It all stems from the fact that the ether body is withdrawing. However, it also means that forces are released as they no longer have to work on the physical body. They can now unite with what has inwardly been elaborated: a person becomes wise. It was well-known in ancient times that in public life a person's counsel could not be of value until the ether body began to withdraw from the physical body. Only then was a person ready to enter public life; only then could his or her talents be of benefit to the people and the state.

Human beings withdraw more and more into their inner being after the thirty-fifth year. No longer does a person have the longings and expectations of youth; he is instead capable of judgment, which one feels carries weight. At the same time certain abilities connected with the ether body, such as memory, begin to wane. About the fiftieth year the physical principle also begins to withdraw. More and more calcium is deposited while the tissue becomes slack. The withdrawing physical principle gradually unites with the etheric principle; what has gone into the Bones, muscles, blood and nerves begins to develop a life of its own. The human being becomes more and more spiritual. All this is certainly greatly enhanced and furthered if the early education was right, particularly as far as the astral body is concerned. Unless the astral body has experienced youthful joy and expectation, it will not now contain what it should be able to imprint on the denser ether body. If that is lacking, then the strong inner life described cannot unfold. We find instead what is called the “childishness of old age.” People who in their youth failed to be imbued with fresh vigorous forces will begin in old age to dry up. It is especially important to take note of this fact from the point of view of spiritual science.

With the thirty-fifth year, the most favorable time arrives for attaining spiritual insight and developing spiritual faculties. A person's karma is particularly auspicious when this does not happen too late in life. The forces that otherwise flow into the bodily nature are becoming free and are at our disposal. As long as a person is obliged to direct his forces outwards, he cannot direct them inwards; that is why the age of about thirty-five is the most favorable time for developing spiritual insight. Development in the first half of life proceeds according to specific time sequences; as indicated by spiritual science, they also exist in the second half, but are not so sharply defined.

Human beings begin to work towards the future in the second half of life. What they inwardly develop at an older age becomes in the future organ and body-building forces; later they participate in cosmic forces. What will thus exist in the future is already indicated in the first half of life. Young people in particular may find this division oppressive; not, however, if spiritual science has been absorbed and understood. When human life is surveyed from a higher viewpoint, it is precisely through such details that one gains practical insight into life's requirements. One must have patience and be able to wait until the organs that are necessary in a particular sphere have developed.