Donate books to help fund our work. Learn more→

The Rudolf Steiner Archive

a project of Steiner Online Library, a public charity

Original Impulses for the Science of the Spirit
GA 96

IV. Education Based on Spiritual Insight

14 May 1906, Berlin

On a number of occasions I have taken the opportunity to reject the prejudicial view that the theosophical approach is far removed from practical life. Quite the contrary. We have often been able to show that theosophy should take us deeply into practical life, for it teaches us the laws of the spiritual principle that is continually shaping life all around us. People who only know the laws of life as it shows itself on the outside know only a small part of life. By far the greater part are the hidden things in life, hidden to the ordinary senses. I am sure it will not be very long before people come to realize more and more that in order to cope with life we have to study the hidden worlds. The materialistic view would lead to crises in all areas, above all in the sphere of health, and also in education, where the question arises: How should humanity educate its coming generation? Materialism would also lead to crises in everything connected with society, politics and civilization. Life would be such that one day people would no longer know how to help themselves. To explain what I mean let me say a few things on educational issues, for this will surely be of interest to everyone.

People who consider education from the materialistic point of view will only too easily arrive at a completely wrong set of rules. For they will never think of the way life follows its own strict rules and they will thus fail to realize that there are periods in life that have profound significance. They'll be quite unable to think, for instance, why the childhood period from the 6th to the 8th year differs fundamentally from the period that extends from the 7th or 8th year to sexual maturity. People who have no idea as to what happens to a young person at this time will also fail to realize how important it is to observe these periods most carefully. It matters that we know what the human being is in these three periods—the first, which is up to the 6th or 7th year, the second, up to the 14th or 15th year, and then again the period that follows for the next 7 or 8 years. These are three ages in human life that have to be studied with care, not just on the surface but also in occult terms, which has to do with the worlds that are hidden to the ordinary senses.

You know that human beings consist not merely of this physical body but have a physical body, an ether body, which is the basis of the physical body and similar to it in configuration, and then the astral body, which to clairvoyant vision looks like a cloud in which the other two bodies are embedded. The astral body also holds within it the principle that bears human I-nature. Let us look at these three bodies as they are in the developing human being.

To get the right idea you have to understand that the periods in which a human being can be seen in physical existence are preceded by the period before birth when the human being is in the maternal womb. You need to distinguish in purely physical terms between life before birth and the periods that follow, and understand that a human being would not be able to live if he were born too soon, coming too early into the externally visible world. He would not be able to live in that world because his sense organs, through which he relates to the outside world, would not yet be fully developed. Our organs develop when we are in the maternal womb until we are born—eyes, ears and everything we need to live in the physical world. And a human being cannot take up contact with the physical world before his organs have been adequately prepared in the protective shelter of another physical body. Birth is the time when the human being has reached a level of maturity where he is able to be in contact with the world without a protective shelter. It will, however, be a long time before this is also the case for the ether body and the astral body. They have not yet reached the point where they can be in direct contact with the world around them. A process which is very similar to the one that happens when a human being is born in the physical body takes place for the ether body in the period from birth until about the 7th year. It is only then that we can say the ether body has been born. The astral body is only born in the 14th or 15th year, and is then able to develop independent activity in relation to the surrounding world.

So you have to understand that no serious demands should be made on the ether body up to the seventh year and none on the astral body up to the 14th year. If one were to expose a child's ether body to the brutal world, it would be just like putting him out into the outside world in the fifth month of his embryonic life, though it would not show itself with the same vehemence. The same applies to exposing the astral body to the outside world before the 14th year. This is something you must understand. Up to the 7th year, only the physical body has been born to the point where the surrounding world may fully influence it. The ether body has so much to do with itself up to the 7th year that we would damage it if we were to influence it from outside in any particular way. Up to this point, therefore, we should only influence the physical body. The education of the ether body may be taken in hand from the 7th to the 14th year, and it is only permissible to influence the astral body from outside in education from the 15th year onwards.

To influence the human physical body is to let the child gain external impressions. These will develop the physical body. Anything in this direction that has not been done by the 7th year can hardly be made up for later on. Up to the 7th year the physical body is at a stage where external sensory impressions should be brought to it to develop it. If the child's eyes see only beautiful things up to the 7th year, they develop in a such way that they will have a feeling for beauty for the rest of that life. Later on it will not be possible to develop a sense of beauty in the same way. The things you say to a child or the things you do are much less important in the first 7-year period than the kind of environment you create for the child and everything the child sees and hears. During that time, inner powers of growth need to be helped and supported by external impressions. The child's creative spirit will make a piece of wood, with a few dots and lines to mark eyes, nose and mouth, into a human figure. A doll that is as beautifully made as possible and given to the child will tie the child down; the inner powers of the spirit are then fixed on to something that is already laid down and not encouraged to be active themselves. As a result, the creative powers of imagination will be almost completely lacking in later life.

This is very much how it is with all impressions gained in the sense-perceptible world. What matters is what you yourself are in the child's world, anything children see and hear directly. They will be good people if they see good people around them. They imitate the things they perceive around them. It is this power of imitation, the influence of examples, that we must value most highly. The right approach will therefore be to do as many things as possible which your child can imitate. This, then, is where the emphasis should lie as we take care of the physical body in the 1st to 7th years. It is not yet possible to influence the higher bodies by deliberate educational measures at this age; during this time, when they are still very much caught up in themselves, you influence them by what you are. A wise person will bring wise thinking to effect in the child's mind just because he or she has that wisdom. Apart from this, anyone bringing up and educating a child should seek to be as complete as possible in themselves when with the child, to think good, noble thoughts, just as a healthy maternal body has a healthy influence on the child's body.

The time when you can influence the ether body by means of educational measures begins with the 7th year. Two things have to be considered—habits and memory, both connected with the ether body's development. A person shapes his ether body by his habits and by taking things up into memory. We should therefore try to give the growing young person a solid foundation in life that is based on good habits. Someone who does something different every day and does not have a secure foundation for his actions will lack character later in life. To develop a basic set of habits is therefore something to be done in the time from the 7th to the 14th year. And we must also influence the memory at this time. What is needed, therefore, is to give the child sound habits and a treasury of knowledge that has been memorized. It really is one of the errors of our materialistic age to think that children should be made to form their own opinions as early as possible. Quite the contrary, we should do everything possible to shield children from this. This is a time when children should still learn things that are given with authority. The people around a child should not merely influence him by example in his second 7-year period, but by direct instruction. Great powers of memory do not always develop with ‘why’ and ‘wherefore’ but by basing everything on authority. Children must therefore have people around them on whom they can depend, whom they can trust, and who make them feel they can believe in their authority.

The young person should only be guided towards independent insight and judgement after this period. If you take away authority too soon you deprive the ether body of its opportunity to develop thoroughly. It is therefore best not to offer proof and opinions to children in their second 7-year period, but examples and parables. Opinions act only on the astral body, and this is not yet free to accept them. We should tell the child as much as possible about great people. The effect of considering such historical figures should be that the child seeks to emulate them. The question as to death and birth is also much better answered by means of examples. You might show the child a caterpillar, for example, how it makes its cocoon and how finally the butterfly emerges from the pupa. This is a truly beautiful example of how a child develops from its mother. Much can be achieved by taking examples from the natural world itself.

It is equally important to teach the child not moral principles but moral parables. This is very evident in some of the sayings of Pythagoras. Instead of reciting: ‘In your undertakings, you should not concern yourself with things which you can see right away are bound to fail,’ he said pithily: 'Don't smite the fire with your sword!' This is a particularly good example. And to teach that one should not get mixed up in anything for which one is not yet sufficiently mature he said: 'Refrain from beans!' Apart from the purely physical there was also a moral aspect to this. Black and white beans would be distributed when decisions had to be made in ancient Greece, and a count would be made of how many white and how many black beans had been returned. Elections were also done in this way. And so instead of saying: 'You're not yet mature enough to get involved in public affairs,' Pythagoras simply said: 'Refrain from beans!'

This addresses the creative powers of imagination and not the powers of the intellect.Fld GA The more you use images the greater the influence on the child. Goethe's mother could not have done anything better than to tell her son beautiful moral tales.28See Goethe's Dichtung and Wahrheit (truth and fiction), Book 10, last but one paragraph. She never preached at him. Sometimes she did not manage to finish a tale and he would then invent his own ending.

It is particularly bad if developing young people are urged to be critical before they reach their 14th year, to act according to their own opinions, so that they lose the beneficial powers of authority around them. It is extremely bad if there is no one to look up to. The ether body will wither, growing weak and sick, if it cannot hold on to great examples as it develops. And it is also particularly bad if they develop their own creed and want to have opinions about the world before they are ready for this. They will only be ready if their astral bodies can develop in freedom. The more we are able to protect them from forming opinions and taking a critical view too early, the better will it be for them. A teacher will be wise therefore to try to let reality show itself in the events themselves before the astral body has come free, and not invite young people to assume a fixed creed, though this is done over and over again in materialistic education. The chaos among the religious confessions would soon vanish if this principle were followed. Powers of judgement and logical thinking should be developed as late as possible and only when a feeling for individual nature arises as the astral body comes free. Before that human beings should not plump for anything individual; the object of their faith should be something given. But in the years that follow individual nature comes most powerfully to expression in the relationship between the sexes, when one individual feels drawn to another.

So you see, if we make a proper study of the three bodies of man we will indeed have a thoroughly practical basis for the proper education aid development of the human being. The science of the spirit is therefore not impractical, it is not something up in the clouds, but something that gives us the best possible directions on how to take action in life.

There is urgent need today to go more deeply into the science of the spirit, for otherwise humanity will come to a dead end. People are critical about earlier times today, saying children were not called on early enough to make their decisions on God and the world. But that was really quite a healthy instinct, and today we must return to this more and more deliberately. The instinctive insights of the past have gone, and with them a degree of certainty about individual things in life. It would be wrong, however, to ruin the human race all at once. If people had been utterly radical in following materialistic principles in education, in medicine, law and so on, our human order would have broken up long ago. But it was not possible to destroy it all; part of the past has remained. Materialism would take humanity into a dead end, and this is why we need the science of the spirit.

Teachers who really still have a feeling for a child's soul simply feel stifled by the standardization in the education system and by regulations that are a caricature of what they should actually be, based on the superstition that we are only dealing with the physical body. Even religious faith does not protect us from this. What matters is that people get a feeling for the spiritual, which really goes beyond the sphere of the senses. This is also why people who stick to external formulas for their principles of education will not find the right way. They cling to traditional church dogma and do not want to know about the evolution of the spirit. This is mainly what we have to deal with. The things we need today must come from spiritual worlds. For anything materialism has produced is fit only to make people sick in their physical and higher bodies. A serious crisis will be inevitable unless humanity goes deeper. Many things point very clearly to the important decisions now being made among humanity. You have to look at the inner aspects; external forms will not do.

People's longing for and interest in the spirit cannot be killed. Spiritualism has been found to be an answer by some of the people who harbour such longings. There the aim is to demonstrate the reality of the spirit in a material way. And it is remarkable to see the attitude of the Roman Catholic Church which, after all, ought to be wholly given to the spirit, with every external action a reflection of something that exists in the spirit. But it is strange to note what happened just recently, which is that someone in the Church has been looking for external proof of the spiritual. A book by Lapponi, personal physician to the Pope, has appeared in which he is making a downright plea for spiritualism.29Prof. Lapponi, personal physician to Popes Pius X and Leo XIII. Book on hypnotism and spiritualism, German edition published in 1906. It should be noted that the lecture was taken down imperfectly, and that the German edition of the work was not available to Rudolf Steiner at the time it was given. It was not published until the end of the year. This is strange because the people for whom the book has been written clearly are no longer spiritually minded; they need tangible proof that there is a world of the spirit. It certainly is something to reflect on when the Pope's personal physician makes a plea for spiritualism. The longing for the world of the spirit is there, but no feeling for the teaching given about that world in their own sphere.

Materialism thus creeps into religious confessions which basically should not be the least bit materialistic. And you can see the importance of a movement that appeals to man's true insight into the spirit, a movement that is not ascetic, however, and removed from everyday life, but at every moment truly helps you really to understand the practical significance of this spiritual element.

Now we also should not ask: ‘How can I quickly develop all kinds of occult powers?’ or: ‘How can I spin a cocoon around myself so that I won't be touched by reality?’ People who ask such questions are egoists and nothing but spiritual gourmets. If they only want to enjoy the things that please them, they are simply doing, at a slightly more refined level, what someone who is a gourmet does even when it comes to his breakfast.

A true theosophist seeks to understand life and to serve it. Parents take a theosophical approach when they consider it to be their task to help the child's development at every step. Don't ask: ‘How can we do that in this day and age?’ It is important to know that what matters is to keep firmly in mind that the soul is eternal. People are prepared to believe in an eternal life into which they enter after their death—immediately, if possible. But when someone is really and truly convinced of the soul's eternal nature, the time from his 2nd to his 80th year is simply a span of 78 years to him, and what is that compared to eternity? You then believe in the eternal nature of existence, and this is also something you must feel and which calls for patience. We must get in the habit of working to serve the whole of humanity, and it does not really matter at all if we can put anything we learn to immediate use or not. We must above all seek to put it into practice again and again, and everyone is bound to find some small area or other where he can do so. But nothing will ever happen if people merely go about criticizing everything. It is better to do just a very, very little, without complaining that we cannot apply the things we have learnt, than to do nothing at all. This should be the law governing our practice.

Life changes of its own accord when we work with the science of the spirit in this way, and you are changing the world without actually noticing it when you become a theosophist. The main thing, and the wisest thing we can do, is first of all to grasp the essence of spiritual science and then to live by it as intensely as we are able. In that way we make it part of life; the rest will follow of its own accord. Mothers and teachers who are theosophists will do things differently without even noticing it compared to someone who has no idea. If you know the configuration of the human being, you will quite instinctively observe the different kinds of development in a young person. Above all genuine, deeper understanding of theosophy will put an end to the kind of hypocrisy where the grown-ups waste their time on all kinds of trivia and then enter the nursery with deadly serious intentions. This happens because people have no faith in the spirit.

We have seen once again that the science of the spirit offers a practical approach to life and that it is senseless prejudice for opponents to say that it is remote from life. In reality it takes us right into life. Today, solid middle-class citizens feel rather special at being able to talk about theosophy. A time will come, however, when people will see this differently. They will realize where keen interest in life really lies. A time will come when people will say: ‘People were completely reactionary when they clung to a stream in time that held no potential for the future, not wanting to know about the great practice in life that offered humanity the prospect of new insights in the spirit, insights of the kind given to us in the theosophical view of the world, insights that will grow firm in us and of increasingly greater practical value because the theosophical way of thinking has been kindled and has come alive in us.’