Donate books to help fund our work. Learn more→

The Rudolf Steiner Archive

a project of Steiner Online Library, a public charity

At the Gates of Spiritual Science
GA 95

8. Good and Evil. Individual Karmic Questions.

29 August 1906, Stuttgart

We will continue our study of particular karmic questions in relation to human life. What does occult science have to say about the origin of conscience? At our present stage of evolution conscience appears as a kind of inner voice telling us what to do and what to leave undone. How did such an inner voice come into being?

It is interesting to inquire whether in the historical evolution of mankind there has always been something comparable to what we call conscience. We find that in the earliest times, language had no word for it. In Greek literature it appears quite late, and in the language of the earlier Greeks no word for it exists. The same thing is true of the early periods of other civilisations. We may conclude, then, that the idea of conscience, in a more or less conscious form, came only gradually to be recognised. Conscience has developed fairly late in human evolution, and we shall see presently what our ancestors possessed in place of it.

How, then, has conscience gradually developed? On one of his journeys Darwin27Charles Darwin, 1809–1882. came across a cannibal and tried to convince him that it is not a good thing to eat another human being. The cannibal retorted that in order to decide whether eating a man is good or bad you must first eat one yourself. In other words, the cannibal had not reached the point of judging between good and bad in terms of moral ideas, but in accordance simply with the pleasure he experienced. He was in fact a survival from an earlier stage of civilisation which was at one time universal. But how does a man like this cannibal come to distinguish between good and bad? He went on eating his fellow-men until one day he was due to be eaten himself. At that moment he experienced the fact that it could really happen to him. He felt that there was something wrong about this, and the fruits of this experience remained with him in Kamaloka and Devachan. Into his next incarnation he brought a dim feeling that what he had been doing was not quite right. This feeling became more and more definite in the course of further incarnations; he also came to take heed of the feelings of others, and thus he gradually developed a certain restraint. After various further incarnations the feeling became still more definite and gradually the thought emerged: Here is something one should not do. Similarly, a savage at a primitive stage would eat everything indiscriminately, but when he got [a] stomach-ache he came to realise by degrees that there were some things he could eat and some he could not. This kind of experience became gradually more and more firmly rooted, and finally it developed into the voice of conscience.

Conscience is therefore the outcome of experiences spread over a number of incarnations. Fundamentally, all knowledge, from the highest to the lowest, is the outcome of what a man has experienced; it has come into being as a result of trial and error.

An interesting fact is relevant here. Only since Aristotle has there been a science of logic, of logical thought. From this we must conclude that accurate thinking too, was born at a certain time. This is indeed so: thinking itself had first to evolve, and logical thinking arose in the course of time from fundamental observation of how thinking can go wrong. Knowledge is something mankind has acquired through many incarnations. Only after long trial and error could a store of knowledge be built up. All this illustrates the importance of the law of karma; here we have another example of something which has developed out of experience into a permanent habit and inclination. A motive such as conscience binds itself to the etheric body, becoming in time a permanent characteristic of it because the astral body has been so often convinced that this or that would not do.

Another interesting karmic relationship is between an habitually selfish attitude and a loving sympathy with others. Some people are hardened egoists—not only in their acquisitiveness—and others are unselfish and sympathetic. Both attitudes depend on the etheric body and may even find expression in the physical body. People who in one life have been habitually selfish will age quickly in their next life; they seem to shrivel up. On the other hand, if in one life you have been ready to make sacrifices and have loved others, you will remain young and hale. In this way you can prepare even the physical body for the next life.

If you recall what I said yesterday, you will have in mind a question: How is it with the achievements of the physical body itself? Its deeds become its future destiny; but what is the effect of any illnesses it may have had in this life?

The answer to this question, however strange it may sound, is not mere theory or speculation, but is based on occult experience, and from it you can learn the mission of illness. Fabre d'Olivet,28Antoine Fabre d'Olivet, 1768–1825, author of La Langue hebraique restituee, 1816. who has investigated the origins of the Book of Genesis, once used a beautiful simile, comparing destiny with a natural process. The valuable pearl, he says, derives from an illness: it is a secretion of the oyster, so that in this case life has to fall sick in order to produce something precious. In the same way, physical illnesses in one life reappear in the next life as physical beauty. Either the physical body becomes more beautiful as a result of the illness it endured; or it may be that an illness a man has caught from infection in his environment is compensated by the beauty of his new environment. Beauty thus develops, karmically, out of pain, suffering, privation and illness. This may seem a startling connection, but it is a fact. Even the appreciation of beauty develops in this way: there can be no beauty in the world without pain and suffering and illness. The same general law holds for the history of man's evolution. You will see from this how wonderful karmic relationships really are, and how questions about evil, illness and pain cannot be answered without knowledge of the important inner relationships within the evolution of humanity.

The line of evolution goes back into ancient, very ancient times, when conditions on Earth, and the Earth itself, were quite different. There was a time when none of the higher animals existed; when there were no fishes, amphibians, birds or mammals, but only animals less developed than the fishes. Yet man, though in a quite different form, was already there. His physical body was still very imperfect; his spiritual body was more highly developed. He was still enclosed within a soft ethcric body, and his soul worked on his physical body from outside. Man still contained all other beings within himself. Later on he worked his way upwards and left behind the fish form which had been part of himself. These fish forms were huge, fantastic-looking creatures, unlike the fishes of today. Then again man evolved to a higher stage and cast out the birds from himself. Then the reptiles and amphibia made their way out of man—grotesque creatures such as the saurians and water-tortoises, which were really stragglers from an earlier group of beings, even further removed from man, whose evolution had lagged behind. Then man cast out the mammals from himself, and finally the apes; and then he himself continued to advance.

Man has therefore always been man and not an ape; he separated off the whole animal kingdom from himself so that he might become more truly human. It was as though you gradually strained all the dye-stuffs out of a coloured liquid and left only clear water behind. In older days there were natural philosophers, such as Paracelsus and Oken,29Lorenz Oken, 1779–1851, natural scientist and philosopher. who put this very well. When a man looks at the animal world, they said, he should tell himself: “I carried all that within myself and cast it out from my own being.”

Thus man once had within himself a great deal that was later externalised. And today he still has within him something that later on will be outside—his karma, both the good and the evil. Just as he has separated the animals from himself, so will he thrust good and evil out into the world. The good will result in a race of men who are naturally good; the evil in a separate evil race. You will find this stated in the Apocalypse, but it must not be misunderstood. We must distinguish between the development of the soul and that of races. A soul may be incarnated in a race on the down grade, but if it does not itself commit evil, it need not incarnate a second time in such a race; it may incarnate in one that is ascending. There are quite enough souls streaming in from other directions to incarnate in these declining races.

But what is inward has to become outward, and man will rise still higher when his karma has worked itself out. With all this something of extraordinary interest is connected. Centuries ago, with the future development of humanity in view, secret Orders which set themselves the highest conceivable tasks were established. One such Order was the Manichean, of which ordinary scholarship gives a quite false picture. The Manicheans are supposed to have taught that a Good and an Evil are part of the natural order and have always been in conflict with one another, this having been determined for them by the Creation. Here there is a glimmer of the Order's real task, but distorted to the point of nonsense. The individual members of the Order were specially trained for their great work. The Order knew that some day there will be men in whose karma there is no longer any evil, but that there will also be a race evil by nature, among whom all kinds of evil will be developed to a higher degree than in the most savage animals, for they will practise evil consciously, exquisitely, with the aid of highly developed intellects. Even now the Manichean Order is training its members so that they may be able to transform evil in later generations.

The extreme difficulty of the task is that these evil races will not be like bad children in whom there is goodness which can be brought out by precept and example. The members of the Manichean Order are already learning how to transform quite radically those who by nature are wholly evil. And then the transformed evil will become a quite special good. The power to effect this change will bring about a condition of moral holiness on Earth. But this can be achieved only if the evil has first come into existence; then the power needed to overcome the evil will yield a power that can reach the heights of holiness. A field has to be treated with manure and the manure has to ferment in the soil; similarly, humanity needs the manure of evil in order to attain to the highest holiness. And herein lies the mission of evil. A man's muscles get strong by use; and equally, if good is to rise to the heights of holiness, it must first overcome the evil which opposes it. The task of evil is to promote the ascent of man. Things such as this give us a glimpse into the secret of life. Later on, when man has overcome evil, he can go on to redeem the creatures he has thrust down, and at whose cost he has ascended. That is the purpose of evolution.

The following point is rather more difficult. The shell of a snail or mussel is secreted out of the living substance of the animal. The shell which surrounds the snail was originally inside its body its house is in fact its body in a more solid form. Theosophy tells us that we are one with all that surrounds us: this means that man at one time contained everything within himself. The Earth's crust, in fact, had its origin in man, who in the far past crystallised it out from within himself. Just as the snail at one time had its house within itself, so man had all other beings and kingdoms, minerals, plants and animals, within himself, and can say to them all: The substances were within me; I have crystallised out their constituent parts. Thus when man looks at anything outside himself, it becomes intelligible for him to say: All that is myself.

Even more subtle is a further idea. Imagine that ancient condition of humanity when nothing had yet been separated off from man. Man was there, and he formed mental pictures but they were not objective—not, that is, caused by external objects making an impression on him—they were purely subjective. Everything had its origin in man. Our dreams are still a legacy from the time when man, as it were, spun the whole world out of himself. Then he was able to look on the world over against himself. We as human beings have made everything, and in the rest of creation we can see our own products, our own being which has taken solid form.

Kant30Immanuel Kant, 1724–1804. speaks of the thing-in-itself as something unknowable by man. But in fact there are no limits to knowledge, for man can find, in everything he sees around him, the traces of his own being, left behind.

All this has been said in order to show you that nothing can be truly understood if it is looked at from one side only. Everything which appears to us in one condition was quite different in earlier times; only by relating the present to the past can it be understood. Similarly, if you do not look beyond the physical world of the senses, you will never understand illness, or the mission of evil. In all such relationships there is a deep meaning. Evolution had to take its course in this way, through a process of splitting off, because man was to become an inward being; he had to put all this out of himself in order that he might be able to see his own self. So we can come to understand the mission of illness, of evil, and even of the external world. We are led to these great interconnections by studying the law of karma.

We will now deal with several particular questions about karma which are often asked. What is the karmic reason that causes many people to die young, even in childhood? From individual instances known to occult science we may come to the following conclusion. If we study a child who has died young, we may find that in his previous life he had good abilities and made good use of them. He was a thoroughly competent member of society, but he was rather shortsighted. Because with his weak eyes he could not see clearly, all his experiences acquired a particular colouring. He was wanting in a small matter which could have been better, and because of his weak eyes he always lagged behind. He could have achieved something quite remarkable if he had had good sight. He died, and after a short interval he was incarnated with healthy eyes, but he lived only a few weeks. By this means the members of his being learnt how to acquire good eyes, and he had gained a small portion of life as a corrective of what had been lacking in his previous life. The grief of his parents will, of course, be compensated for karmically, but in this instance they had to serve as instruments for putting the matter right.

What is the karmic explanation of children born dead? In such cases the astral body may well have already united itself with the physical body, and the two lower members may be properly constituted. But the astral body withdraws, and so the child is born dead. But why does the astral body withdraw? The explanation lies in the fact that certain members of man's higher nature are related to certain physical organs. For instance, no being can have an etheric body unless it possesses cells. A stone has no cells or vessels, and so it cannot have an etheric body. Equally, an astral body needs a nervous system: a plant has no nervous system and therefore cannot have an astral body. In fact, if a plant were to be permeated by an astral body it would no longer be a plant, but would have to be provided with cells if it were to be permeated by an etheric body.

Now if the Ego-body is gradually to find a place for itself, there must be warm blood in the physical body. (All red-blooded animals were separated off from man at the time when the Ego-condition was being prepared for man.) Hence it will be seen that the physical organs must be in proper condition if the higher bodies are to dwell within them. It is important to remember that the form of the physical body is moulded by purely physical inheritance. It may also happen that the way in which the various bodily fluids are combined is at fault, although parents are well-matched in soul and spirit. Then the incarnating entity comes to a physical body which cannot house the higher members of its being. Thus for example the physical and etheric bodies may be properly united; then the astral body ought to take possession of the physical body, but the organism at its disposal is not in a suitable condition, and so it has to withdraw. The physical body remains, and is then still-born. A still-birth may thus be the outcome of a faulty mixture, on the physical level, of the fluids of the body, and this, too, will have a karmic connection. The physical body can thrive only in so far as the higher principles can live within it.

How are karmic compensations accomplished? If someone has done something to another person, there will have to be a karmic adjustment between them, which means that the persons concerned must be born again as contemporaries. How does this happen? What are the forces that bring the two persons together?

The way it works out is as follows. A wrong has been done; the victim has suffered it; the person who did it passes into Kamaloka, but first he has to witness the occurrence in the retrospective tableau of his past life. The injury he has inflicted does not then cause him pain, but in Kamaloka, as he relives his life backwards, the event comes before him, and now he has to suffer the pain he caused. He has to feel it in and through the very self of his victim. This experience imprints itself like a seal on his astral body. He takes with him a portion of the pain, and a definite force remains in him as the outcome of what he has experienced in the other man's being. In this way any pain or pleasure he has to live through turns into a force, and he carries a great number of such forces with him into Devachan.

When he returns to a new incarnation, this is the force that draws together all the persons who have had experiences in common. During the Kamaloka period they lived within one another, and they incorporated these forces into themselves. Hence within one physical human being there may be three or even more “Kamaloka men”, in order that the situation involving them may be lived out.

An example known to occult science will make this clear. A man was condemned to death by five judges. What was really happening there? In a previous life the man had killed these other five men and karmic forces had brought all six together for a karmic adjustment. This does not produce a never-ending karmic chain; other relationships come in to change the further course of events.

Spiritual forces, you see, are thus secretly at work to bring about the complicated patterns of human living. Further important aspects of the subject will become clear during the next few days, when we go on to study the whole evolution of Earth and Man.