Donate books to help fund our work. Learn more→

The Rudolf Steiner Archive

a project of Steiner Online Library, a public charity

Excurses on the Gospel of Mark
GA 124
Part III. Excursus

Lecture V

28 February 1911, Berlin

For the goal we have set before us, which is connected with the study of the Gospel of Mark, is to be pursued further, it must be grasped in its widest meaning. It may perhaps be only after a considerable time that the reason will appear why one or another line of study has been pursued, and what connection these have with our subject. We will have to speak to-day, for instance, of certain things which apparently are far removed from our theme, but which will be of great assistance to us in our later studies.

Allow me to say in the first place that those who are outside our movement will always have difficulty in understanding certain things connected with the direction of the theosophical spiritual movement so long as they do not inform themselves intimately with what concerns the central nerve of this movement. Such things, for instance, as: what meaning and value have “clairvoyant investigations” for those who have not yet attained clairvoyant powers. The objection might be made:—“How can a faith or conviction concerning spiritual truths be developed by those who cannot see into the spiritual world?”

Here attention must be drawn to the opposite—that as long as our clairvoyant eyes remain unopened we cannot see into the spiritual world, although from this spiritual world all the results and revelations it contains are derived. When it is stated as a result of clairvoyant investigation that man consists of four members—physical body, etheric body, astral body and ego—the person who holds aloof from such investigation might perhaps object:—“I only see the physical body, how can I convince myself of the existence of these higher members of my Being before my Karma makes it possible for me to see them and realise the truth of what I am told concerning them.”

It is easy for anyone, if he so wishes, to deny the existence of the astral and etheric body, but he cannot by decree annul the processes that go on in them, for they are seen in human life. I would like, in order that you may enter into the whole composition of the Being of man, as revealed by many of the expressions found in the Gospels, to show how clearly the results of processes within the etheric and astral body can be seen in our ordinary life on the physical plane.

Let us, in the first place, consider the difference between a man who is full of idealism and sets up high ideals, and one who is disinclined to do this, who acts according to instinct, who eats when he is hungry, sleeps when he is sleepy, does this or that when moved by desire for one thing or another. Naturally there are all kinds of intermediate stages between these two types; between the one just described and others whose thoughts and ideals rise far above what they are able to attain in ordinary life. Such idealists are always in a peculiar position regarding life. They must always try to convince themselves of the truth of the saying that it is not possible really to satisfy their highest ideals in any domain of the physical plane. Idealists constantly state:—“My deeds ever lag behind my ideals.” We must therefore acknowledge when speaking strictly: in a man's ideals—in what he thinks or feels, there is always something greater than in his deeds. According to spiritual science this is the outstanding feature of the idealist. Keep this clearly before you: the idealist is one whose intentions and thoughts are always greater than what he is able to accomplish on the physical plane. Of the man whose life we have described as being the opposite of this we can say: his thoughts and views are narrower, more restricted than his deeds. Anyone who acts only from instinct, passion, or desire, has not thoughts capable of grasping the result of his actions at any given moment, the things he does far exceed his power of thought. His intentions and thoughts are therefore narrower, more restricted, than his deeds on the physical plane.

The clairvoyant has something to tell us concerning these two types. When we do something, when we carry out some piece of work that is greater and more far-reaching than our thoughts, this activity always casts a reflection into our astral body. We do nothing in life that is not reflected or imaged in our astral body. This image is imparted later to the etheric body and as it is imparted so it remains in the Akashic Chronicle and can he seen there by the clairvoyants as a picture of what the man has done during his life. In the same way images remain behind in the astral body and are later projected into the etheric body, thoughts that are greater than the fulfilment of them. This means thoughts that are the outcome of idealism, that are reflected in the astral body and continue further into the etheric body.

There is a great difference between the reflected images of actions that have sprung from instincts, desires, passions, etc., and the reflected images of deeds that are the outcome of idealism. The first contain something that remains as a destructive element during a man's whole life. They are those images, those con-tents of the astral body which gradually affect the entire human being so that it is slowly destroyed. Such images are closely connected with the way human life on the physical plane is gradually prepared for death. But those other reflections springing from thoughts which transcend our actions, have life-giving qualities. They are specially stimulating to our etheric body, for they continually bring new vital forces to man's whole being.

Thus, according to clairvoyance, we have destructive forces within us on the physical plane and at the same time forces that continually impart fresh life. As a rule the effect of these forces on life can be easily seen. We meet people who are gloomy, hypochondriacal, of a sombre temperament, people who are not happy in their soul life, all this works back on their physical organism. They become nervous, and one observes how nervousness, if it continues, undermines the health of the physical organism. Such men become melancholy in later life, are discontented with themselves, and in various ways are unbalanced natures. If the cause of this is investigated we find that such persons have had little opportunity in the earlier periods of their physical life of transcending action by idealistic thought. In ordinary life such things are not noticed; but their results are clear! Many people feel these results strongly, they feel them as an attitude of soul and of life, and perceive them also in bodily conditions.

So, though the astral body may be denied, its consequences cannot be denied, for they are felt. And when life reveals the things I have just described people are forced to acknowledge that we are not so very foolish when we declare that we have proof of them. For though spiritual happenings can only be seen by the clairvoyant, the results can be seen by anyone.

On the other hand we find that thoughts which are more noble than the actions connected with them, leave impressions which appear in later life as courage, confidence and calmness. These continue to work even into the physical organism, but the connections are only noticed when a man's life is observed over long periods of time. The mistake of many scientific observations is that people are apt to judge results immediately in the course of the first few years, whereas the results of many things are only apparent after decades.

Now, we must realise, there are not only people of a purely idealistic nature whose thoughts transcend their various experiences, and others whose thoughts lag behind their experiences, but we have a large number of experiences which our thoughts only grasp with the greatest difficulty. Eating and drinking are things that spring anew each day from instinct, and it takes a long time before those who are going through a spiritual training learn to connect such things with spiritual life. It is precisely everyday things that are the most difficult to connect with spiritual life. We have first done this as regards eating and drinking when we have discovered why, in order to serve the progress of the world, we have to receive physical substances into us regularly, and what connection these physical substances have with spiritual life. We then learn that digestion is not merely a physical process, but that there is something spiritual in its rhythm. In any case there is a way of gradually spiritualising those things which are not demanded purely by external necessity; it is possible so to regard them that we say:—We eat this or that fruit, and through our spiritual knowledge can always form an idea of how an apple, or any other fruit, is related to the universe as a whole. This, however, takes a long time. For we must in this case accustom ourselves to allow eating to be no mere material fact, but to observe the connection between the spirit and the ripening of any fruit by the rays of the sun.

In this way we spiritualise the most material, most everyday processes, and acquire power to enter into them with our thoughts. (Here it is only possible to hint how thoughts and ideas can be brought into this realm.) It is a long road, and very few men in our age can arrive at thinking perfectly as regards eating.

Thus there are not only people who act instinctively, and others who act idealistically, but with everyone life is partitioned so that one part of a man's actions is carried out in a way that thought cannot follow, and others so that thoughts and ideas have a wider range than actions. We have one set of forces within us which lead our life downhill, and operate so that our physical organism through internal causes is gradually prepared for death; and another set of forces which bring life to our astral and etheric bodies, and dawn continually like a new light within these bodies. These are the life-giving forces within our etheric body.

When after death we forsake our sheaths with the spiritual part of our being we still have the etheric body about us for a few days, and because of this we have that backward vision of our whole life of which I have often spoken. The best of what now remains to us is something inwardly constructive, the life-giving forces just mentioned, that rise within us because our ideas transcend the sum of our actions. These continue to work in us after death, and contain the life-forces necessary for our following incarnation.

The life-giving forces we implant in us remain within our etheric body, they are forces of enduring youth, and though we cannot lengthen our life through them we can so shape it that it retains the freshness of youth for a longer time. We do this by acting in such a way that our thoughts surpass the measure of our deeds.

When a man asks himself:—“How can I gain those ideals which best transcend my actions?” We answer:—This is possible when people give themselves up to spiritual science which directs their thoughts to super-sensible worlds. When they learn, for instance, from spiritual science of the evolution of man, these communications stir up forces in the higher members of their being, and they gain through them at the present day the most certain, most concrete idealism. And when questioned further:—“What specially does spiritual science do compared with other sciences?” We answer:—“It pours into our astral and etheric bodies, fresh, youthful, life-giving forces.”

People are related to what we call spiritual science in so many different ways, not because as men of to-day they are non-clairvoyant, but because they do not observe things in ordinary life with sufficient care; otherwise they would see the various ways in which what we call the man of soul and spirit reveals himself, even within his organism.

Those who live in the world and only approach spiritual science as thorough unbelievers may hear it said:—“This science holds, that the human physical body is filled by various higher members, it sums these up as the soul- and spirit-man. But the materialists of the present day do not wish to believe in this man of soul and spirit. They believe only in the physical man, and for this reason they are materialists. Under the term materialists people frequently understand only theoretical materialists, those who only believe in matter! But as I have often said—these theoretical materialists are not the worst, for such a materialist might he one who created ideas merely through his understanding, and such ideas are usually very short-sighted, a materialism that springs only from ideas is not necessarily very harmful. But when it is fortified by other things it can be very harmful for a man's whole life, especially when with the innermost spiritual kernel of his being he is attached to his material side. And how dependent people are to-day on what is material!

It may be misleading to assert that there are theoretical materialists as regards thoughts, and that some thoughts are fatal to our souls; but our external life is also greatly influenced by the fact that in the practices of life there are so many materialists. What do I mean by this? I mean a man who is so dependent on physical things, that he can only spend a few months in his office in winter, and in the summer must go to the Riviera. Such a man is entirely dependent on materialistic arrangements and combinations; he is a materialist as regards the practices of life; he is entirely dependent on material things; his soul is forced to run after the wants dictated by life. This is a different kind of materialist from the one who lives only in thoughts which are materialistic. A theoretical idealism may yet lead to the conviction that theoretical materialism is a mistake, but the practical materialist can only be cured by entering profoundly into spiritual science.

If people would only think, that is, if their thoughts did but spring, not merely from understanding, but from a connection with reality, they would recognise from quite ordinary facts that there is a great difference between the various parts of man's being.

I will first point out the difference between the hands and, let us say, the shoulders.

If we investigate physical man in an entirely external way, we find physical differences, for instance, in the way the nerves behave. Yet we must remember that we can exercise a certain influence on this. If the behaviour of our nerves was the absolute and only authority for the soul, we should be dependent on the activity of substance, for the behaviour of the nerves is an activity of substance. This we most assuredly are not; for we are able to influence the state of our nerves, and we do so in the most varied way, especially through our etheric and astral bodies; that is through our soul and spirit. We must not simply say:—“The physical body is filled by the etheric and astral body,” for this varies according to the part we are considering, whether it be the head or the shoulder or some other part. Different spiritual parts act differently. It is easy to convince ourselves of this. We must, however, realise that what takes place in life is in accordance with reality, and cannot be studied without thought. If our breath is not drawn correctly the physiologist discovers by physiological laws why it did not reach the place intended.

And why do people not ponder the profound significance there is for life in the fact that they wash their hands more often than any other part of their body? (It may seem strange that such things should be mentioned, but it is precisely by everyday events that the communications of the clairvoyant can be verified.) In any case this is a fact. And it is also a fact that some people wash their hands more frequently and more gladly than others. This fact so apparently trivial is really connected with the highest knowledge. When a clairvoyant observes the hands, they are for him wonder-fully different from all the other members, even from the face. From the fingers luminous projections stream forth from the etheric body, sometimes glimmering feebly, sometimes piercing surrounding space. They stream forth differently according to whether the person is joyful or sad, and differently from the inner surfaces than from the backs of the hands. For anyone who can observe things clairvoyantly the hand, more especially in its etheric and astral parts, is a most wonderful formation.

Everything around us even if material, is a revelation of spirit. Matter has to be thought of in regard to spirit as ice is to water; matter is formed out of spirit. If you like you may call it consolidated spirit. Therefore if we come in contact with any substance, we contact the spirit in that substance. Any contact we make with substance, in so far as this is material, is Maya (illusion). In reality it is the spirit we encounter.

The way we come in touch with the spirit in water, when we wash our hands for instance, is seen—when life is observed with sharpened senses—to have a great influence on our whole disposition, however often we wash them. There are natures that have a certain preference for washing their hands, they must wash at once if they touch anything dirty. These natures are related in a quite special way to their surroundings. They are not restricted merely to what is material, for it is as if a fine force within the material substance begins to affect them, and that they have established the connection I mentioned between their hands and the element of water. Such people are even seen to possess, in an entirely healthy sense, more sensitive natures, finer powers of observation than others. They know at once, for instance, if they encounter anyone of a brutal or of a kindly nature. Whereas those others who endure dirt on their hands are actually of a coarser nature, and show by such ways that they have raised a wall between themselves and the more intimate relationships with the surrounding world. This is a fact and, if you like, it can be proved ethnographically. Pass through and observe the various countries of the world. You are then able to say:—“Here or there people wash their hands more.” Observe the relationship between such people, observe how different the relationship is between friend and friend, between acquaintance and acquaintance, in regions where hands are more frequently washed than in regions where walls have been raised between them owing to this being done less frequently.

Such things have the value of natural laws, Other connections can cancel them. If we throw a stone through the air, the line of its flight describes a parabole. But if the stone is caught by the wind the parabole is not there. This shows that we have to know the conditions before certain relationships can be observed correctly!

Whence does this knowledge come? It comes from clairvoyance, for it is revealed to this consciousness how finely the hands are permeated by soul and spirit qualities. This is so much the case that a special relationship of the hands to water is apparent, greater than in the case of the human countenance, and greater still than in respect of the surface of other parts of the human body. This must not be understood as an objection in any way to bathing and washing, but rather as throwing light on certain relationships. It is only to show how very differently man's soul and spirit-nature is related to his various members, and how differently this is impressed on them.

You will find it hard to believe, for instance, that anyone could suffer injury in his astral body through washing his hands too frequently. But this must be considered in its widest aspect. It depends on the maintenance of a healthy relationship between man and the surrounding world—that is, between the astral body of man and the surrounding world—through the relation-ship of his hands to water. For this reason excess in this is hardly possible.

If people think only in a materialistic way, clinging with their thoughts to what is material they say:—“What is good for the hands is good for the rest of the body.” Showing that they do not note the fine differences between them and the other members.

The result is one that is seldom noticed; namely, that as regards certain things all of the human body should not be treated alike. For instance, as a specific cure children used to be ordered frequent cold baths and friction. Fortunately, because of certain results on the “nervous system” physicians have found these methods unwise. For, owing to the special relationship between the hands and the astral body, what is in some ways suitable for them, may soon prove harmful where the body stands in a different relationship to the astral body. Where a healthy sense of perception towards the surrounding world is evoked through frequent handwashings, an unhealthy, hyper-sensitiveness is often the result of an exaggerated cold water treatment; and this, especially if employed in childhood, may last during the whole life.

It is therefore most necessary that the limits should be known, and this is only possible when people acknowledge the fact that the physical body is closely linked with the higher members of man's Being. People will then realise that the more physical part of us—the physical instrument—must be treated quite differently from the soul and spirit-nature. They must also realise this in connection with the glands which are instruments especially of the etheric body, while everything connected with the nerves and the brain is intimately associated with the astral body. If these things are not understood, neither will certain other appearances ever be understood. Materialists err most in this, because they always look to the instrument and not back to the cause. Everything we experience is experienced in the realm of the soul, and that we are conscious of these experiences depends on our having an instrument of reflection in the physical body. In it everything is preserved, but the physical body is only the instrument. This is often brought to our notice in a remarkable way. I need only mention the thyroid gland. This you know is regarded as a meaningless organ, and in cases of illness is removed, but the patient may sink into idiotcy. If only a part of this gland remains the danger is avoided. This shows that the secretions of this gland are necessary for the development of certain things in the life of the soul. Now the strange nature of this organ is further revealed in the fact that if the secretions of the thyroid gland of a sheep are given to the patient who has lost his own gland, the tendency to idiotcy is lessened, but the contrary if the secretions of the sheep are withheld. Materialists find great satisfaction in this fact. Spiritual science is able, however, to estimate it in the right way. We are faced with the strange fact that we are here concerned with an organ, the products of which we can trace directly to our organism. Activities such as occur in the thyroid gland are only possible when there is a certain connection with the etheric body. Where a similar connection exists with the astral body these activities are not possible.

I have known more or less feebly endowed men who have eaten sheep's brains, yet have not become clever! This shows the great difference there is between different organs. This difference is only so considerable because one group of organs have connection with the etheric body, others with the astral body. From this another very remarkable fact is disclosed to spiritual observation.

It seems very strange that a man becomes feeble-minded when his thyroid gland is removed, but can be restored to cleverness by having the extract of the same gland administered to him. It seems strange because it cannot be discovered that his brain is affected thereby. This is again a point where ordinary human observation is of necessity led to spiritual scientific methods of observation, for spiritual science shows that the man did not become the least feeble-minded when his thyroid gland was removed. “But,” you say, “the facts show that the man was feeble-minded I” In reality men do not become idiotic because they are wanting in understanding, but because the possibility of making use of the instrument which gives them “awareness” is wanting. They do not become idiotic through any loss of understanding, but because contact with their surroundings is blunted, and bluntness is different from the loss of understanding. Understanding is not lost if through want of awareness it has never been developed. If you are unable to think about a thing, you cannot ex-press yourself regarding it; you must first think of it before any contact with it can be established. The “power to participate,” the living interest in things is undermined when the thyroid gland is removed. Men become indifferent to such an extent indeed, that they cease to employ their understanding.

From this you can see the great difference between the employment of an instrument of understanding like the various parts of the brain, and of an instrument connected with a gland such as the thyroid gland. In this way we are able to throw light on the different ways in which our physical body is an instrument, and when this is understood we can distinguish between the different parts of human consciousness.

Even in respect of the ego we can say that it is related in the most varied way to the surrounding world. We have here to consider things connected with the ego which I have described elsewhere from different aspects, showing how man either enters more within himself with his ego, strives to become more aware of himself, or he turns to the outer world striving rather to find his connection with it. We become in a certain sense conscious of ourselves when we turn our glance inwards—when we devote ourselves to the thought of what life gives us, what it holds for us. We are then conscious of our ego. We can become conscious of it when we come in contact with the outer world; for instance, when we knock up against a stone, or if we can-not solve a calculation we are conscious of our ego as something feeble compared to conditions in the external world. In short, both within ourselves and also in the external world we can become conscious of our ego. We become aware of our ego in a very special way when those magic connections between man and the surrounding world arise which we describe as feelings of sympathy or compassion. Here it is clearly seen that a magic activity passes from soul to soul, from spirit to spirit. For whatever takes place in the world is felt by us; what is there felt or thought, is experienced again within us, we experience it as something inward, some-thing of the soul and spirit. We are then inwardly intensified; for compassion and sympathy are experiences of the soul. And if our ego is not sufficiently developed for these experiences and requires strengthening, this is expressed in a purely spiritual way through sorrow and in a physical way through tears. Sorrow as a soul-experience brings greater strength to the ego in respect of outward experience than does indifference. Sorrow is always an inner enhancement of the ego. Tears but express the fact that at the moment the ego strives to experience more than it would through indifference.

In this connection we are forced to admire the poetic fantasy of the young Goethe, closely connected as it was with profound facts of human nature. It is where he allows the weakness of Faust's ego to lead him so far that he feels at first constrained to extinguish this ego physically, he feels driven to suicide.; then the Easter bells ring out, and at the sound the ego of Faust begins to gather strength, so much so that tears spring—the sign of this in the soul of Faust:—“Tears start, earth holds me once more,” he cries.

This means that what belonged to earth was strengthened through the shedding of tears, the increased intensity of the ego found expression in tears.

In mirth and laughter we again have what is connected with the strength or weakness of the ego in its relationship to the external world. These show that the ego feels strong as regards its understanding of things and events. In laughter our ego draws together, and its intensity is strengthened.1See Paths of Experience: the Chapter on Laughing and Weeping, where this subject is fully explained. – Ed. This finds expression in mirth, in the way we show our amusement. With this is associated the fact that sorrow is fundamentally something that should be so experienced, at least by the healthy man, that what occasions this sorrow is real to him. What affects us in this reality, so that in sharing it we feel we must enhance the inner activity of our ego, brings about a feeling of sadness. But when sorrow depends on what is unreal and is expressed merely in an artistic sense, the man of sound thought will feel that he requires something more. He feels that to the cause of his sadness a certain conviction must be added that sorrow can be overcome by something able to conquer misery. Therefore we demand from the drama that it should represent the victory of the person who is overtaken by misery. It is no aesthetic representation of life that sets only its trivial elements before us; in a man who trusts entirely to his healthy nature, the ego is not satisfied when confronted with misery that is counterfeited.

The whole weight of reality is required before our ego can rise to compassion.

Now, do you not feel in your souls how different it is as regards anything comic? It is in a certain extent inhuman to laugh at a simpleton, but it is quite sound to laugh at one when represented on the stage. Burlesques and comedies are a healthy means of showing how the folly of men's actions leads to absurdities.

When our ego is able to rise to laughter over what is generally recognised as folly, it is strengthened, and there is no healthier laughter than that evoked through such artistic presentations, though it is inhuman to laugh at what actually befalls our fellow men, or at a real simpleton. Thus different laws come into operation whether these things affect us as representations or in actual life. We must allow that if our ego is to be strengthened through compassion this is best done when we are actually confronted with the fact that moves us to compassion. On the other hand as healthy men we demand from misery that is counterfeited, that we should find in it the means of overcoming it. In the dying heroes of tragedy, where death is actually enacted before our eyes, we feel that the victory of the spirit over death is symbolised in these deaths. The whole matter is re-versed when the ego is brought in touch with the world around us. We then feel that faced with reality we can-not attain to mirth or laughter in the right way, that we are best able to laugh at those things that are more or less removed from reality.

When a man meets with some misfortune, which does not specially injure him and is not closely connected with the real facts of life, we may well laugh at his misfortune. But the nearer this experience is to reality the less can we laugh at it when we understand it. From this we see how varied are the relationships of our ego to reality, but in all this variety of facts we recognise everywhere a link with what is greatest.

From many lectures you have learnt that in ancient initiation there were two ways of gaining entrance to the spiritual world. One method was by sinking deeply within one's own being—within the Microcosm; the other was by passing out into the life of the Macrocosm or great world. Now everything which comes to expression in great things is revealed also in the smallest. The way in which a man descends into his own inner being in daily life is shown by his sadness; and the way in which he is able to expand into the life of the outer world is shown by his ability to grasp the connections of such events as he there encounters. In this is seen the supremacy of the ego. And you have heard that if the ego is not to be lost it must be guided by the initiation that leads into the outer world; otherwise it loses itself, and instead of going forth into the outer world it is brought to apparent nothingness.

The smallest things are connected with the greatest. Therefore, in Spiritual Science, where we have so often to rise to the highest spheres, we must sometimes concern ourselves with what belongs to the most everyday things. In the next lecture, when once more we shall occupy ourselves with higher spheres, we shall make use of some of the things dealt with to-day.