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At the Gates of Spiritual Science
GA 95

6. The Upbringing of Children. Karma.

27 August 1906, Stuttgart

The grasp of life given by Theosophy is in the highest sense practical. The light it throws on questions of education will be deeply useful to humanity long before people are clairvoyant, and long before a person attains to direct vision he can convince himself that in Theosophy the truth about life is to be found.

Once he is born, the human being enters on a new life, and his various bodies develop in different ways and at different times. The educator should always bear this in mind. The period from the first to the seventh year is very different from the second seven-year period from the seventh to the fifteenth or sixteenth year—earlier with girls, later with boys. Then there is a change again after the sixteenth year, or shall we say after puberty. We can properly understand how a human being grows to maturity only if we keep before our eyes the different ways in which the various members of his being develop.

From birth to the seventh year it is really only the physical body that parents and educators have to consider. At birth the physical body is released into its environment; before birth it is part of the maternal organism. During the whole period of pregnancy the life of the mother and of the human embryo are intermingled. The physical body of the mother surrounds the physical body of the child, so that the outer world has no access to the child. At birth, things change; only then can the child receive impressions from other beings in the physical world. But the child's etheric and astral bodies are still not open to the external world; up to the seventh year, indeed, the external world cannot influence them, for they are inwardly absorbed in building up the physical body. At about the seventh year the etheric body begins to be free to receive impressions from outside, and it can then be influenced. But from the seventh to the fourteenth year no attempt should be made to influence the astral body, or its inward activity will be disturbed. During the first seven years it is best to leave the etheric and astral bodies quite unmolested and to rely on everything happening of its own accord.

The best way to influence the child during his first seven years is through the development of his sense-organs. All the impressions they receive from the outer world are significant, and everything a child sees or hears affects him in terms of his sense-organs. The sense-organs, however, are not influenced by lesson-books or verbal teaching, but by means of example and imitation. The most important thing during the first seven years is to nourish a child's sense-organs. He will see with his eyes how people round him are behaving. Aristotle23Aristotle, 384–322 B.C. The sentence cited here is from the treatise, “On the Poetic Art”, Chapter 4. was quite right in saying that man is the most imitative of all creatures; and this is particularly true during the first seven years. Hence during these years we must try to influence a child's senses, to draw them out so that they become active on their own account. That is why it is such a mistake to give a child one of those “beautiful” dolls; they hinder him from setting his own inner powers to work. A normal child will reject the doll and be much happier with a piece of wood, or with anything which gives his imagination a chance to be active.

No particular method of teaching is needed for the etheric and astral bodies, but it is extremely important that the subtler influences which pass over to them unconsciously from their environment should be favourable. It is very important that during these early years a child should be surrounded by noble-minded, generous-hearted and affectionate people with good thoughts, for these stamp themselves on the child's inner life. Example, therefore, in thought and in feeling is the best means of education at this stage. It is not what we say but what we are that influences a child during his first seven years. Because of the extreme sensitivity of the inner members of a child's being, his surroundings should be kept free from all impure, immoral thoughts and feelings.

From the seventh to the fourteenth, fifteenth or sixteenth year—that is, until puberty—the etheric body goes through a liberation, just as the physical body is thrown open to its environment at birth. During this period, then, we must direct our efforts to the etheric body, the vehicle of memory, of lasting habits, of temperament and inclinations and enduring desires. Accordingly, when the etheric body is set free we must take every care to develop these features; we must influence a child's habits, his memory, everything which will give his character a firm foundation. The child will grow up like a will-o'-the-wisp if care is not taken to imbue his character with certain lasting habits, so that with their aid he will stand firm against the storms of life. This, too, is the time for exercising his memory; memorising is more difficult after this age. It is at this time also that a feeling for art awakens, particularly for the art of music, so closely associated with the vibrations of the etheric body. If any musical talent exists, this is when we should do all we can to encourage it. This again is the time for stories and parables; it is wrong to try to develop critical faculties so early. Our age sins greatly in this respect. Care must be taken to see that the child learns as much as possible through stories and analogies; we must store his memory with them and must see to it that his power of comparison is exercised on concepts drawn from the sense-world. We must bring before him examples taken from the lives of the great men of history, but there must be no talk of “this is good” or “this is bad”, for that would make a demand on his judgment. We can hardly place too many such pictures or examples before the child; these are the things which act on the etheric body. This, too, is the age when stories and fairy tales, which represent human life in the form of pictures, have a powerful effect. All this makes the etheric body supple and plastic and provides it with lasting impressions. How grateful Goethe must have been to his mother for telling him so many fairy stories at this age!

The later the power of critical judgment is aroused in a child, the better. But children ask “why?” We should answer such questions not with abstract explanations but through examples and images. And how infinitely important it is to find the right ones! If a child asks questions about life and death, and the changes that accompany them, we can use the example of the caterpillar and the chrysalis, and explain how the butterfly arises from the chrysalis to a new life. Everywhere in nature we can find such comparisons, relevant to the highest questions. But quite specially important for the child of this age is authority. It must not be an enforced authority—the teacher must gain his authority quite naturally, so that the child will believe before it has knowledge to go on. Theosophical education demands of the teacher not only intellectual knowledge, not only educational principles and insights; it demands that the type of people chosen to be teachers must be those whose natural gifts show promise of their becoming “an authority”. Does this seem too much to ask? Surely we cannot fail to get such teachers, since the future of mankind depends on it. Here a great cultural task for Theosophy opens up.

When the child enters the third period of seven years, the age of puberty, the astral body is liberated; on it depends the power of judgment and criticism and the capacity for entering into direct relationships with other human beings. A young person's feelings towards the world in general develop in company with his feelings towards other people, and now he is at last mature enough for real understanding. As the astral body is liberated, so is the personality, and so personal judgment has to be developed. Nowadays young people are expected to offer criticism much too early. Seventeen-year-old critics can be found in abundance, and many of the people who write and pass judgments are quite immature. You have to be twenty-two or twenty-four before you can offer a sound judgment of your own; before then it is quite impossible. From the fourteenth to the twenty-fourth year, when everything around him can teach a person something, is the best time for learning from the world. That is the way to grow up into full maturity.

These are the great basic principles of education; countless details can be deduced from them. The Theosophical Society is to publish a book24“A book will be published”: “The Education of the Child from the Standpoint of Spiritual Science”, given as a lecture in various places in Germany; first published, made into an article, in Rudolf Steiner's periodical, Lucifer-Gnosis, 1907, and in the same year as a pamphlet. An English translation is available, entitled, The Education of the Child in the Light of Anthroposophy. for teachers and mothers which will show how from birth to the seventh year the essential thing is example; from the seventh to the fourteenth year, authority; from the fourteenth to the twenty-first year the training of independent judgment.

This is one example of how Theosophy seeks to lay hold of practical life through all its stages.

Another example of practical Theosophy can be drawn from a study of the great law of karma: a law which really makes life comprehensible for the first time. The law of karma is not mere theory, or something that merely satisfies our curiosity. No, it gives us strength and confidence at every stage in life, and makes intelligible much that would otherwise be unintelligible.

First of all, the law of karma answers the great human question: why are children born into such widely differing conditions? For instance, we see one child born to wealth, perhaps endowed also with great talents and surrounded by the most loving care. And we see another child born to poverty and misery, perhaps with few talents or abilities, and so apparently predestined to failure—or a child may have great abilities but no chance to develop them. These are serious problems, and only Theosophy gives an answer to them. If we are to face life with strength and hope we must find an answer. How then does the law of karma answer these riddles?

We have seen that a man passes through repeated lives on Earth, and that when a child is born, it is not for the first time: he has been on Earth many times before. Now in the external world the rule of cause and effect prevails, as everyone recognises, and it is this great natural law of cause and effect which we see, carried over into the spiritual realm, as the law of karma.

How does the law work in the external world? Take a metal ball, heat it and put it on a wooden board. It will burn a hole in the wood. Take another ball, heat it but throw it into water before you put it on the board, and then it will not burn a hole. The fact that the ball was thrown into the water is significant for its later behaviour. The ball goes through a sort of experience, and its behaviour will vary accordingly. Thus the effect depends on the cause. This is an example from the inanimate world, but the same law holds everywhere. Animals gradually lose their eyesight if they go to live in dark caves. Now suppose that in a later generation such an animal were able to reflect: why have I no eyes? It would have to conclude that the cause of its fate was that its ancestors had gone to live in caves. Thus an earlier experience shapes a later destiny, and so the rule of cause and effect holds.

The higher we move in the scale of nature towards man, the more individual does destiny become. Animals have a group-soul, and the destiny of a group of animals is bound up with the group-soul. A man has his own Ego, and the individual Ego undergoes its destiny just as the group-soul of animals does. A whole species of animal may change over the generations, but with man it is the individual Ego that changes from one life to another. Cause and effect go on working from life to life: what I experience today has its cause in a previous life, and what I do today shapes my destiny in my next life. The cause of different circumstances at birth is not to be found in this life; nothing immediate is responsible for it. The cause lies in earlier lives. In a previous life a man has prepared his present destiny.

Surely, you might say, it is just this that must depress a man and rob him of all hope. But in fact the law of karma is the most consoling law there is. Just as it is true that nothing exists without a cause, so it is equally true that nothing existing remains without its effects. I may be born in poverty and misery; my abilities may be very limited; yet whatever I do must produce its effect, and whatever I accomplish now, by way of industry or moral activity, will certainly have its effect in later lives. If it depresses me to think that I have deserved my present destiny, it may equally cheer me to know that I can frame my future destiny myself. Anyone who really takes this law into his thinking and feeling will soon realise what a sense of power and of security he has gained. We do not have to understand the law in all its details; that becomes possible only at the higher stages of clairvoyant knowledge. Much more important is it that we should look at the world in the light of this law and live in accordance with it. If we do this conscientiously over a period of years, the law will of its own accord become part of our feelings. We verify the truth of the law by applying it.

At this point all sorts of objections may arise. Someone may say: “Then we should certainly become sheer fatalists! If we are responsible for whatever happens to us and cannot change it, the best thing is to do nothing. If I am lazy, that is my karma.” Or perhaps someone will say: “The law of karma says we can bring about favourable consequences in our next life. I will start being really good in a later life; for the moment I will enjoy myself. I have plenty of time; I shall be returning to Earth and I will make a start then.” Someone else says: “I shall not help anyone any more, for if he is poor and wretched and I help him I shall be interfering with his karma. He has earned his suffering; he must look after changing his karma by his own efforts.”

All these objections reveal a gross misunderstanding. The law of karma says that all the good I may have done in this life will have its effect, and so will everything bad. Thus in our Book of Life there is a kind of account-sheet, with debit and credit sides, and the balance can be drawn at any moment. If I close the account and draw the balance, that will show my destiny. At first this seems to be a hard, unbending law, but it is not so. A true comparison with the ledger would run as follows: each new transaction alters the balance and each new action alters the destiny.

After all, a merchant does not say that since every new transaction upsets his balance, he can do nothing about it. Just as the merchant is not hindered by his ledger from doing new business, so in life a man is not hindered from making a new entry in his Book of Life. And if the merchant got into difficulties and asked a friend to lend him a thousand marks to help him to recover, it would be nonsense if his friend replied that he really couldn't do anything because it would mean interfering with the state of his friend's account-book. In the same way it would be nonsense if I refused to help another man in order not to come into conflict with the law of karma. However firmly I believe in the law of karma, there is nothing to prevent me from relieving any misery and poverty. On the contrary, if I did not believe in the law, I might doubt whether my help would have any effect: as it is, I know that my help will have a good effect. It is this aspect of karma which can console us and give us energy for action. We ought to think of the law of karma not so much in its relation to the past as in its bearing on the future. We may indeed look back on the past and resolve to bear its karma, but above all we should be positively active in laying a foundation for the future.

Christian clergymen often raise the objection: “Your Theosophy is not Christian, for it ascribes everything to self-redemption. You say a man must work out his own karma quite alone. If he can do this, what place is there for Christ Jesus, who suffered for all mankind? The Theosophist says he needs no help from anyone.”

All this indicates a misunderstanding on both sides. Our critics do not realise that free-will is not restricted by the law of karma. The Theosophist, on his side, needs to see clearly that because he believes in karma he does not depend entirely on self-help and self-development; he must recognise that he can be helped by others. And then a true reconciliation between the law of karma and the central fact of Christianity will not be hard to find. This harmony has always existed; the law of karma has always been known to esoteric Christianity.

Let us imagine two people: one is in distress because of his karma, the other helps him because he has the power to do so, and in this way the karma of the former is improved. Does this exclude the law? On the contrary, it confirms it. It is precisely the working of the law of karma which makes the help effective.

If someone has more power than this, he may be able to help two or three or four others if they are in need. Someone still more powerful may be able to help hundreds or thousands and influence their karma for the better. And if he is as powerful as Christianity represents Christ to be, he may help the whole of humanity just at a time when it is in special need of help. But that does not make the law of karma ineffective; on the contrary, Christ's deed on Earth is effective precisely because the law of karma can be built upon.

The Redeemer knows that by the law of karma His work of redemption will be available for everyone. Indeed, He accomplished that deed in reliance on the law of karma, as a cause of glorious results in the future, as a seed for a later harvest and as a source of help for anyone who allows the blessings of redemption to act upon him. Christ's deed is conceivable only because of the law of karma; the testament of Christ is in fact the teaching of karma and reincarnation. This does not mean that each one must bear the consequence of his own actions, but that the consequences must be borne by someone, no matter whom. If a Theosophist maintains that he cannot understand the unique deed of Christ having been accomplished once only for all mankind, this means that he does not understand karma. The same is true of any priest who declares that karma interferes with the doctrine of redemption. The reason why Christianity has hitherto failed to emphasise the law of karma and the idea of reincarnation is bound up with the whole question of human evolution and will be dealt with later.

The world does not consist of single “I's”, each one isolated from the rest; the world is really one great unity and brotherhood. And just as in physical life a brother or friend can intervene to help another, so does this hold good in a much deeper sense in the spiritual world.