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Original Impulses for the Science of the Spirit
GA 96

VIII. The Relationship of Human Senses to the Outside World

19 October 1906, Berlin

As we have gathered here52The Architektenhaus in Berlin had lecture rooms which could be rented. Rudolf Steiner lectured there from 1903 to 1918, giving a comprehensive introduction to anthroposophy in his longest continuous series of lectures. on the eve of our annual general meeting, and look forward to a stimulating time, it may seem appropriate to open the sequence of meetings with a lecture for visitors from outside Berlin and as well as for our Berlin members. A lecture like this,53A further set of notes became available for this lecture (19 Oct. 1906). Changes in the text compared to the 1st German edition of 1974 are due to this. not part of the programme but offered as a free gift, may thus be on a subject that would fit in less well with the normal run of theosophical lectures—something for advanced theosophists and at the same time also for people who are at the very beginning. The latter will however need to find their way into things first. They will need to pay serious and careful attention if they are to be able to follow completely. On the other hand we also offer something for those who want to hear something about the parts of the higher worlds that are accessible to us.

Our theme will be the relationship of the human senses to the outside world, to the physical and the non-physical world around us.54On this subject, see Steiner R. Theosophy of the Rosicrucian (GA 99), lectures of 1 & 2 June 1907. Tr. M. Cotterell, D. Osmond. London: Rudolf Steiner Press 1981. Welt, Erde and Mensch (GA 105), lecture of 3 August 1908 (in German). It seems significant that Rudolf Steiner was considering the subject as preparations were in progress for the Annual General Meeting of the Theosophical Society's German Section. For the same occasion in 1909 he developed a theory of the senses based on the science of the spirit in the lectures he gave on 23-25 Oct. that year, publ. in The Wisdom of Man, the Soul and the Spirit (GA 115). In his own words, this gave the European spiritual scientific movement he was leading a firmer foundation. He intended to publish this theory of the senses in book form, but the work remained fragmentary. Published posthumously as Anthroposophy (A Fragment) (GA 45). We shall touch on a subject to which we are not yet paying sufficient attention among ourselves—the question as to how we should really see the relationship between the four bodies that make up essential human nature.

One of the first things people learn in the science of the spirit is that the human being consists of a physical body, an ether body, an astral body and a body which we have always been calling the I-body in our discussions. The I-body holds the seeds for our higher development. All this is given in elementary books on theosophy and in the things theosophists gradually come to hear in their first lectures. But people often say that the I-body is the highest of the four bodies, the astral body is less high, the ether body even less high, and the physical body the lowest of them all.


kama manas
astral body
ether body
physical body

Anyone can read up about this in my Theosophy. We are interested in the four lower bodies also known as the Pythagorean quadrangle. The one called the ‘I’ or ‘kama manas’ is widely considered to be the highest, followed by the astral body, the ether body and the physical body as lower bodies. That is a fairly biased view, however, and I have often said that it is not correct. In its own way the physical body is the most perfect and also the oldest part of the human being. Consider this physical body in all its parts, study it, using the means given in modern science! You only have to give it some real thought and you’ll have to say to yourself: ‘This physical body is most marvellously constructed in all its parts, filled with the greatest wisdom the world has ever known.’ Nothing in this world—in so far as we are able to investigate it by physical means—is more perfect than the human physical body. You may look at a whole cosmos of stars, or study the most artful mechanism human beings can devise, and you’ll not find anything more perfect than the physical body. If you study the human heart and the functions it has to perform, looking at it as a purely physical apparatus, or just consider a piece of bone with all the marvellous struts inside, you’ll find this to be true. Just take a bit of the thigh bone. It has struts that run like this (Fig. 2):

bit of thigh bone
Fig. 2

The cleverest engineer would be unable to produce a structure as perfect as this, a system created by the cosmos to support the upper part of the human body. And it is the same with the human brain and all the organs that are part of the human physical body. You may study the whole of nature—there is nothing to equal this physical body in perfection.

Why is this physical body so perfect? Human beings have not always been the way they are today. They have gone through a long process of development. The human beings you see before you today, consisting of these four elements, have more than just long evolution on this physical planet earth behind them. Another planet, the predecessor of our earth, went before. That was the ancient Moon. This was preceded by the ancient Sun, and the Sun by ancient Saturn. Think of it in terms of a human being going through incarnations. The earth, too, has gone through similar states. We are able to trace four of them. In doing so, we are looking back on immeasurably long periods of time, stretches of time beyond the comprehension of an earthly human being. But something of this human physical body was present even then.

The first beginnings of the physical body existed on ancient Saturn. Nothing was there as yet of our present-time ether body, nor anything of the astral body, let alone the human I. We can see from this that the physical body has gone through four stages. On the ancient Saturn planet it emerged as a simple physical body, a kind of basic supportive structure. It then went through a transformation and entered into a twilight state, a pralaya. The physical body later emerged again on the ancient Sun—which was something very different from today’s sun—but now at a higher level. There the ether body joined it. The ether body is thus very much younger than the physical body. The young ether body developed under the influence of the physical body that already existed, now at its second level of perfection. During that time on the ancient Sun, when the physical and the ether bodies both existed, nothing existed as yet of the astral body. This only joined them during the third earth incarnation, on the ancient Moon. There the human physical body went through its third level of perfection, and the ether body through its second stage. On the Moon, the physical body may have been said to be in class 3, the ether body in class 2, and the astral body in class 1. The I only joined them on earth and had not yet been through anything until then. When the physical body appeared on earth, this was its fourth appearance. The human I-body will have reached the stage at which the physical body is today only after another three planetary stages, the astral body after another two planetary' stages. And the ether body will have reached the level of perfection of today’s physical body when one more planetary stage has been gone through.

Some quite commonplace reflections can convince us that the astral body is much less perfect than the physical body. The physical body in its wisdom would never fall into the kind of crude error the astral body does. Just think of the appetites created by the drives, desires and passions that live in the astral body. The heart has to stay fit for decades in spite of appetites in the astral body that are harmful to it. That is the case, for instance, if we drink coffee or tea, and so on. The heart does not want such stimulants, but the astral body does. The astral body does something that goes against the grain for the physical body at its present level of development. On the planet we call Venus, the astral body will have reached a level where it will be as wise in its behaviour as the physical body is now, unless it is disturbed.

We thus have to see the physical body as the most carefully developed and most perfectly made part of essential human nature. It has learned something every time it has completed another planetary stage, and has become increasingly more perfect. Looking at the physical human body you see that it consists of a number of organs. People do not give much thought to the way these organs have come into existence. In anatomy, in science, the human being is said to consist of such and such organs, having a liver, a heart, a nose for smelling, ears for hearing, eyes for seeing. And these organs are described in detail in modern science. But when people do this they are doing something that can only be compared with the following.

Imagine one were to put an old table and a new table side by side and describe them in a very basic way. One table has four feet, a top, it has such and such a colour, and the other table also has four feet, a top, such and such a colour, and so on. Those descriptions may be perfectly accurate and yet they do not really tell us what matters in this case—that one table is old and the other new. You can describe the eyes and ears in the same way. You can tell people what they look like today. You can describe the auricle, the auditory canal and everything, the acoustic nerves, and so on. You can describe the human eye in the same way. Both descriptions will look good, and it might appear that they are equal in value. But in the highest occult sense they are not. The two are not equal in value because these two organs—eyes and ears—have evolved at very different times.

If you were to go back to ancient Saturn and examine the first beginnings of the human physical body, when there was no question as yet of an ether body, astral body and I, if you were to examine the peculiar physical body that existed in those very early times, you would look in vain for even the first beginnings of eyes. But you would not be able to find them, for even the potential for eyes would not yet exist. You would find the potential for the human ear. This, then, is the age difference, and you can understand it if you realize that the physical body has gone through as many stages of evolution as our planet. At the first stage it went so far as to develop the full potential for the ears. These were already preformed when the human being came to Saturn from other, very different worlds. Human beings already had the potential for hearing when they entered into this particular chain of evolution.

They added the potential for a sense of temperature on that first planet, a feeling for warmth. This is generally called a skin sense. But careful distinction has to be made between two things. In the first place it is the sense of touch, perceiving hard and soft; then it is also the sense of temperature, perceiving hot and cold. This is the sense of temperature we are speaking of. So you have a sequence. First we have hearing and then the feeling, the sense of temperature. This sense of temperature evolved on the earth's planetary incarnation which we call Saturn. Such a sense does of course go through transformations at different stages of evolution. When it first appeared it was very different from the way it will be in its later form.

The ancient sense of hearing which human beings brought with them into planetary evolution was a quite peculiar sense of hearing. The best way of characterizing it is perhaps to say: ‘Basically that the human physical body was just one big ear.’ The human being was all ear at the time of entering into this planetary evolution. As a physical body the human being hardly differed at all from the environment. Man sounded, and everything else sounded as well. In the whole of their bodies, human beings perceived what lived out there as the sounds of the world. Just as a string vibrates when another is plucked or struck, so there was a vibration in the human physical body for every sound that arose in the world. Everything resounded.

The further development of the senses was a matter of specialization. Human beings had been all ear to begin with, and then the sense of temperature arose. Something that had been one before became differentiated into two structures. This also became apparent at the physical level. Organs appeared that would mediate only hearing, others that would mediate only temperature perceptions. The whole human being thus changed each time the physical body reappeared. The senses became specialized, and a simple form gradually grew highly complex.

Human beings thus entered into Saturn evolution with the potential for hearing. On Saturn they acquired a sense of temperature. During the Sun evolution that followed they gained the sense of sight. The potential for a sense of sight which developed during Sun evolution was thus the third stage, with the other senses becoming transformed so that on the Sun the human being was able to hear, feel and, in a way, to see.

Continuing along the line of evolution we come to the Moon. The Sun had first gone into pralaya again. It then rose again as Moon. On the Moon, the sense of taste developed in addition to the other senses. Four of our present-day senses had thus evolved. The others again specialized, distributing themselves among individual organs. You can literally follow the way this physical body opened up to be an organ for the outside world. The sympathetic nervous system had already evolved on the Sun. During life on the ancient Moon, the other organs also evolved in stages, but we’ll just consider the senses here. On the Moon, then, the sense of taste was added and on earth the youngest of the senses, the sense of smell. If you study the senses today, you can tell yourself that the sense of smell is the youngest, having developed last in the human being. The sense of taste was already there during Moon evolution and has been refashioned once. Every refashioning makes the senses more perfect. The sense of smell is the least perfect. The sense of taste has corrected its errors once, the sense of sight twice, the sense of temperature three times. Our sense of hearing is the most perfect, however, for it had already gone through four transformations and is going through the fifth on earth.

You thus have to see the human body as a highly complex entity and realize that much had to happen so that the physical body was gradually able to develop. One has to know their relative ages if one is to form an opinion about different parts of this body. So the senses again have different relationships to other spirits, also as regards their level of perfection. A sense organ which is more perfect, having gone through quite a number of transformations, relates to completely different worlds from those to which a sense organ relates that has only gone through a few transformations.

Let us stay with the sense of hearing for now. It has gone through a whole sequence of stages, for potentially it existed already when the human being entered into this evolution. So what happened? Physical Saturn evolution took the sense of hearing a stage further, and then added the first beginnings of a sense of temperature. Then, during Sun evolution, the ether body was added to the physical body. From Moon onwards the astral body played a role, and from earth evolution onwards the I-body. But this whole scheme of things also meant something else. The I does not yet have an influence on the sense of smell because the sense of smell only joined the other senses on earth and is still wholly caught up in physical evolution. The human ether body has an influence on the sense of taste, the astral body on the sense of sight, and the I-body on the sense of temperature, of warmth, of feeling.

The first beginnings of manas developing in the human being, as the potential for a higher spiritual self, have an influence on the sense of hearing. This principle, which belongs to man’s higher nature, thus only has an influence on the sense of hearing today. None of the things the four lower senses make their own becomes part of our eternal soul. Only the things that can be expressed in words, things we are able to put into words—a word only has to be thought and it will be heard inwardly—are part of the eternal, immortal part of the human being. All thoughts that can be put in words, feelings that are so clear in our minds that we can put them in words, all the impulses to which human beings can put a name and which do not live in them as dim drives but are so clear that they can be put into words—all this belongs to the eternal part of the human being. The word is therefore something that is part of the eternal basis of the human being. And if we start to speak of things eternal at all, we must quite literally speak of the word. At the time when the earth entered into its evolution, when earth evolution began on Saturn, this first potential for the word was there. Now, on earth, this potential has evolved. The statement: ‘In the beginning was the word’55John 1: 1 must be taken quite literally. Those gospel words should not be taken as symbolic, but their meaning has to be developed until they can be understood in their literal sense. The word is also the beginning of the eternal part of the human being. Because of this, the word, the audible word, is the first part of the human being that proves useful for developing the future world. Everything the other senses produce is of no use at all for the evolution which the earth must still go through.

Legends and myths often contain profound truths, or do you think legend does not know that anything produced by the sense of smell is of no immediate use in earth evolution? That further planetar evolutions have to be gone through before the principle that lies in the sense of smell will be of use? The father of all obstacles thus is one who leaves a horrible stench behind—the devil is recognized after he’s gone because of the stench he leaves behind. The world of legend holds the deepest truths; one only has to know how to take them literally in the highest sense.

Our study of the senses and the way they relate to the world can take us yet further. Let us take one of the senses, say the sense of sight. It is the middle one of the senses. I’d now like you to follow me into something rather subtle. You know that the astral body, in which man’s inner drives, appetites and passions live, shows itself to the clairvoyant as a light body. In this light body you see all kinds of configurations and colours. Every passion, every drive has a specific colour. All this, and even a person’s basic mood, comes to expression in this light body. Looking at the light body of someone who is rather nervous, you see it pregnant with glittering dots that flash and shine out. It all shines out and vanishes again in a rich play of colour.

If there is a terrible affect, you see rays like this:

Fig. 3

Someone with hidden resentment shows figures like snakes:

Fig. 4

This is difficult to draw, because it is in constant motion, rather like lightning. The person is feeling anger or resentment or anxiety when the soul is twitching like this inside. That is where a human being inwardly experiences his state of soul. Outwardly this state of soul shows itself in light phenomena to the clairvoyant.

Fig. 5

The physical eye sees lights and colours around it. Just as a clairvoyant sees red, blue, yellow and green in the astral body, so does the physical eye see red, blue, yellow and green around it. In both cases the cause is exactly the same. Just as an appetite lives behind the red in the astral body, so there is an appetite behind the red of a flower as the ‘thing in itself’. What the sense of sight does when it goes beyond this point is no different from turning a coat inside out. Whilst man's astral nature comes to expression in his aura, external astral nature lives behind the whole world of colours and light, the world that exists for the sense of sight. There would be never be any colours in the world if all things were not completely imbued with astral spirits. The colours that show themselves in the world come from the astral spirits that show themselves in colours. In turning inside out, the spirit moves from the higher to the lower plane.

You can achieve the following by means of meditation. If you have a green area before you, perhaps the leaf of a plant, and now go outside yourself to look at the matter from the other side, you would see the astral spirit that is behind the green colour and shows itself to be present by means of the colour green.

So you have to see it like this. Looking out in the world and seeing it decked out in colours, you can assume that astral spirits are behind those colours. Just as you let the colours of your aura become apparent to the clairvoyant, so does the tapestry of colour in the world reflect the cosmic aura. All colour in this world is aura turned inside out. If you were able to turn your aura the way you do a coat, the other side your aura would also become physically visible to you. This applies to the sense of sight, and you can see from this that the sense of sight is closely bound up with the astral world.

Taking the sense of feeling, the sense of temperature, this in turn has a universal relationship to the lower parts of the astral world. While the sense of sight relates more to the upper parts of the astral world, the sense of feeling or temperature has the same kind of relationship to the lower parts of the astral world, more to the region where the astral world begins its transition to the ether world. The sense of hearing is directly related to the physical world, and the things you perceive as sense of hearing are oscillations in the physical air.

This is something I would ask you to consider in a most subtle way, in the right way. If you want to see something, an astral spirit must be behind the colour you see. There must also be an astral spirit behind the heat or cold you feel. If you want to hear something, you have fully arrived in the physical world, since the sense of hearing is the most perfect of the senses and you can hear a physical entity. It is thus only in the word that the world of the spirit has rightly descended as far as the physical world.

Starting from the top therefore [on the board], we are able to say that the phenomena of the sense of heating are entirely on the physical plane, those of heat are already somewhat higher up, those of the sense of sight are on the astral plane, and the phenomena we perceive through the least perfect of the senses belong to the higher parts of the spiritual world. Whatever extends down into the physical world is simply the least perfect. Anything the sense of smell is able to perceive, anything it brings down into the physical world, is most incomplete. Where this goes its own way, it separates out from the great scheme of things, from evolution. The phenomena revealed in the sense of smell should only arise in intimate connection with the most sublime worlds today.

Let us then take the spirits which at one time, just when the sense of smell had started to evolve on earth, separated out from evolution and became independent. These are spirits that make themselves known mainly through the sense of smell. And so it is rather nice that legend speaks of fallen angels making themselves known in a most unpleasant way through the sense of smell. Having left the stream of evolution, they have become perceptible to the sense of smell.

If we therefore ask ourselves what really lies outside the skin which encloses the human sense organs, we have to say to ourselves that there we do indeed have the different higher planes and their spirits.

Research at the physical level is in most beautiful agreement here. Just think of how an eye develops. Initially it starts from the outside. A small depression develops in the skin of the creature developing an eye. This gradually deepens,

devellopment of eye
Fig. 6

and after a time it looks like this. This then fills up with a kind of fluid and finally closes up.

closing up of eye
Fig. 7

And so the eye is indeed pushing in from the outside. The human organs do not develop from the inside but push in from the outside. It is the same for all human and animal organs. The technical term for it is ‘invagination’ or ‘inversion’. In vertebrate animals, a channel first developed, and the spinal marrow integrated itself into this from the outside. That is also how the senses integrate themselves from the outside.

What makes the eye push in like that? This is the work of the spirits that are active in the light. It is the spirits active in the ray of light which create the eye from the organism, spirits that are behind the outer appearance of things, astrally, of which we have said that we would be able to see them if we could turn our conscious mind inside out. They have pushed the eye into the physical organism. The eye is thus created by spirits of light. The other organs are created in the same way by other spirits from the different worlds. When you feel yourself to be inside your skin, you can feel yourself to be in the condition where spirits have worked on your body from different sides. When man arrived on Saturn in his very first evolution, only the most sublime spirits were able to work on his organ of hearing. He was taught to hear by higher and then also by lower spirits until on earth, too, the spirits embodied in the outside air began to share in the work on his organ of hearing. Man hears air in motion with his organ of hearing; that is where sound lies.

If we really take this into our hearts and minds, we shall begin to understand in a very deep sense why air played such a special role in the Genesis story, why it had to be breathed into man, so that it might play this role also with regard to his organ of hearing. ‘The creator breathed the living breath in man, and he became a living soul.’56Genesis 2 Man himself is at his highest level created by the word, by sound. This also shows the relationship human beings have to their whole environment through the senses.

Looking at the sense of sight you can say that the spirits which live on the astral plane have worked on the sense of sight. They live in the ray of light. The ray of light has a physical and an astral part. Now imagine it falling on something. It contains the external physical light and also the astral spirits which live in the ray of light. Now make yourself stand in such a way that you stop the ray of light, letting the sun shine on your back. You will stop the physical light but not the astral spirits. An astral spirit will then be in front of you, in your shadow. An astral spirit lives in he shadow which you cast before you. This astral spirit living in your shadow is no more and no less than an image. An image of what? Of the body. And what lives in it takes its form from the soul. This is one of the methods by which one can gradually see one’s own soul. Primitive peoples were not entirely wrong when they said that the soul lived in a person’s shadow. You will find this in countless legends—the soul goes with the shadow. The soul first shows itself to astral vision in the shadow, in its form.

You’ll now also understand the deep significance of Chamisso’s Peter Schlemihl, the man who lost his shadow.57Chamisso, Adalbert von (1781–1831). German poet, writer and biologist. Peter Schlemihl published in 1813. Read Chamisso’s short story with this thought about the shadow in mind and you will realize that much, much deeper meanings lie behind many such stories.58Changes in the German text compared to the 1974 edition are the result of making comparison with another set of notes.

You will in fact realize more and more that someone who does not know of these things is going about more or less like a blind Person. Someone who knows nothing of the worlds of spirit does not have the slightest notion of what he is taking along with him in his shadow. All the subtle things that surround us will be opened up again to people through the science of the spirit. The world is very puzzling for someone who wants to respond to it inwardly. When people become aware of the riddles that face them, they will no longer consider the spiritual scientific view to be something superfluous, something dreamt up by people with vivid imaginations, but realize that the reality which exists all around us only opens up for us through the science of the spirit. We should never tire of studying everything around us. Many spirits have had a hand in the complex structure we call the human being. This is also why the structure has so many different levels of perfection. The physical ear only gained the right to hear at the physical level once it had gone through many stages. A chela59Chela (Sanskrit), adept or disciple in the spirit. who under the guidance of his master goes early to the Venus stage, will also be able to perceive other people on the physical plane in light activity; for then light activity will also extend down to the physical plane.

The process of evolution is quite regular. Just as the sense of hearing has descended to the physical plane, so will the sense of sight descend to the physical plane permitting genuine clairvoyance. The logic of this is quite apparent. Someone who is prepared to think can already see the sense of it, and no one can refute it by mere thinking. That is how it is with all things in the science of the spirit. Only people who do not want to think will fight the science of the spirit, or people wanting to apply their thinking activity only to the things they are used to thinking. Of course someone may come and say: I don’t want to go on a train, but this does not mean we can deny the existence of the railways. So there may also be people who say: There’s nothing in this business of higher worlds. But that does not mean we can deny the existence of the higher worlds. They do exist.

We have spoken of the human sense organs and tried to throw some light on the surrounding world. We have found that the sense organs exist only because other spirits create them. In the same way we could have spoken of the inner spirit that bases itself on the surrounding world. It is not possible to understand these things with a science of the physical world. There it may well be possible to show the structural differences between eye and ear, but not the difference in age between eye and ear. This needs occult science, where it is possible to see behind the surface. We could also have shown that the liver is much younger than the spleen. In that case we would have found that the spleen existed when the ether body joined forces with the physical body, whilst the liver only came with the astral body, with human passions. This is most beautifully shown in the story of Prometheus. The eagle that pecked at the liver of Prometheus who had been chained to a mountain peak is deeply significant.

You might thus consider the great truths to be found in legends in a new way. Ancient legends and myths hold profound wisdom. The myths did not arise from the poetic fantasy of the people, that is an academic superstition. Academics are the most superstitious people in the world. People who believe in ghosts are not as superstitious as are our academics. It is superstition to say that there is a popular fantasy that creates blindly. In reality the great myths come from initiates who knew the things which are now being made accessible again to humanity in the great theosophical truths.

In earlier times, societies where theosophy was taught existed in the part of the world where we are now. Some would go out and tell the things they had heard in their circles to the people, presenting them in myths. Myths thus hold spiritual truths, and anyone who tries can discover these again in the myths. Only lesser myths do not go back to the great initiates. Genuine myths come from them, they are their creation. If you remember this, you’ll see that the myths of different peoples are miraculous writing. Learn to read the myths and look deeply into the souls of peoples that have gone before, peoples that created from inside, as it were. Turn the myths inside out, as we turned the astral plane inside out earlier, and you have modern science, in concept.

In modern science you find the same truths, the evolutional truths to be found in the myths. Hence the strange agreement between the idea of evolution, understood at a deeper level, and the very earliest teaching given to humanity. The elements of mythology are seen from inside, modern science sees them from the outside; but they are the same elements. This brings to mind the remarkable fact that truths found in the earliest religious beliefs come up again in scientific facts that are rightly understood. It need not surprise us to hear that modern science is mythology transformed. It therefore has to be the same in structure as something that existed before.

We have been considering the way the senses relate to the world around us.

Tomorrow at 2 p.m. we'll talk about theosophical matters that do not come from so far away but nevertheless play a role in everyday life.