The Work of the Ego in Childhood
A Contributing towards an Understanding of Christ
25 February 1911, Zurich
Translated by D. S. Osmond
Originally published in Anthroposophical Quarterly, Volume 21, Number 4, Winter 1976.
In a public lecture such as the one given yesterday on Spiritual Science and the Future of Man, account must always be taken of the very limited receptive capacity of the world today. In our time, data of knowledge that are essential for humanity do indeed flow down from the spiritual worlds but can be accepted open mindedly only by very few people. To most individuals who have not prepared themselves adequately for the reception of such knowledge, the deeper aspects of our Spiritual Science prove to be something of a shock, something that seems fantastic or dreamlike.
All the more it behoves us to deepen our feeling for the most significant questions that arise in the course of fairly lengthy study in a Group. And now I want to speak of the need for a closer study of the great truth of the implanting of the Ego, the ‘I’, in man and to indicate that the subject is more complicated than it is usually thought to be at the present time.
We have heard that during the period of Old Saturn man was endowed with the rudiments of the physical body, during the period of Old Sun with that of the etheric body, during the period of Old Moon with that of the astral body, and that the essential task of our Earth evolution is the incorporation of the Ego into the other members of man’s constitution. Not until the end of Earth’s evolution will the human being be completely permeated — as is possible — by the Ego. If we study the man of Earth as such, we can say that the actual centre of his being is the Ego, the ‘I’ But then it must occur to us that in each of the different periods of our present life this Ego is connected with us differently, by no means always in the same Way. We must realise above all that the different members of our being are not understood when we simply enumerate them as physical body, etheric body, astral body and Ego. Now let us consider in what different ways the members can be connected with each other both during the various epochs of mankind’s evolution and during the single life of the human being.
Let us think, to begin with, of a child. We know that it is not until a comparatively late period that he learns to say ‘I’ of himself. This is very indicative. Although modern psychology, in its endeavours to be a bona tide science, does not grasp the fact, it is deeply significant that the inner experience, the mental conception of the ‘I’ wakens in the child comparatively late. In the very earliest years, until the age of 3 or 3½, although now and then the child babbles the sound ‘I’, he has no real experience of Egohood. You may come across a book by Heinrich Lhotzky entitled Die Seele deines Kindes (Your Child’s Soul) which contains the curious statement that the child learns to think before he learns to speak. This is nonsense, because it is by speaking that the child learns to think. Those who strive to grasp Spiritual Science must be cautious of what purports to be Science today. It is approximately) after the third year of life that a child learns for the first time to experience and be cognisant of the ‘I’.
This is connected with another fact, namely that in normal consciousness — not in higher, clairvoyant consciousness — we have no remembrance of our life before a certain point of time. If you think back over the past, you will realise that remembrance ceases at a certain point and does not extend as far as birth. What others have told us can often be confused with what we ourselves have experienced, but the thread breaks at approximately the point when the ‘I’ is experienced for the first time. A very young child has no such experience; it arises later on and it is then that a very dim kind of remembrance begins.
We now ask ourselves: if the experience of ‘I’ was not present during the first three years of life, was the ‘I’, the Ego, itself also not there in the child? The question to put to ourselves is this. Are we cognisant of something that is actually within us or is it within us without our knowledge? The Ego is indeed within the child only he is unaware of it, just as during sleep a person is connected with the Ego but is not cognisant of it. The fact is that we know of something, but that can be no criterion for us. We must say: the ‘I’ is present in the child but the child is not conscious of it.
What, then, is there to be said about the Ego? It has its own task to perform. If you were to investigate the human brain purely physically, you would find that just after birth it looks very imperfect compared with its later structure. Many of the finer convolutions have to be elaborated and moulded later on, during the subsequent years. This is what the ‘I’ achieves in the human being and because this is its task it cannot itself become conscious of it. The Ego has to elaborate the brain into a more delicately complicated structure, in order that later on the human being will be able to think. During the first years of life the Ego is very active.
When the Ego becomes conscious of itself, we could ask in vain: how have you managed to construct this brain with such artistry? — you will admit that during the whole span of life between birth and death the Ego does not develop consciousness on a par with that by which the brain is elaborated. Nevertheless we can ask ourselves the question. And the answer is that in its activity the Ego is under the guidance of the Beings of the higher Hierarchies. When we observe a child clairvoyantly, his Ego — as Ego-aura — is certainly there, but streams go out from this aura to the higher Hierarchies, to the Angels, Archangels, and so on; the forces of the Hierarchies stream in. Therefore when naive consciousness speaks of a child having a Guardian Angel, this is a very real truth. Later on this closer connection ceases; the ‘I’ experiences itself more in the nerves and can therefore become conscious of its own existence. A kind of detachment takes place. In the child a sort of ‘telephonic connection’ exists, inasmuch as the ‘I’ extends into the divine-spiritual Hierarchies. The statements of Spiritual Science must be taken seriously. I once said that the very wisest person can learn a great deal from a child. He can also learn a great deal because he need not look only at the child himself but also through him into the spiritual world, because in the child there is the ‘telephonic connection’ with the spiritual world — the connection that is ultimately severed.
Hence during the first three years of life we have before us a being quite different from the one who is there later on. Under the guidance of the Beings of the higher Hierarchies a childhood Ego works at the development of man’s instrument of thinking. This ‘I’, this Ego, then passes into the instruments themselves and can no longer work at them. Man’s instruments of thinking must then already have developed. Certainly they can develop to further stages, but the ‘I’ can no longer be working at this development.
The human being may therefore be thought of as twofold: the one we see during the first three and a half years, and the one which represents the rest of his life. In the language of esotericism, the first being is called the divine man, or the Son of God, because he is connected with the higher Hierarchies; the other is called the Son of Man. In the latter the Ego is present, moves the limbs and works — as far as it is possible to work — from within outwards. A distinction must therefore be made between the Son of God and the Son of Man.
The Son of God who is preeminently active for the first three and a half years of life embraces all the vitalising forces, stimulates the human being to pour these life giving forces in greater and ever greater measure into his organism. In comparison with those in an older person these forces are also health giving, strengthening factors. If we are not content in later life to be human beings who have to rely entirely on the senses and on the instrument of the physical body for our connection with the surrounding world but determine in our later years to strive upwards to the spiritual world, then we must contrive by some means to awaken these forces within ourselves; we must evoke the forces that are within us in earliest childhood, but with the difference that now we awaken them consciously, whereas a child awakens them unconsciously. In this respect too, therefore, it is obvious that man is a twofold being.
What is it, in reality, that is brought to light by these forces during the first three and a half years of life? In these forces — which are active under the direction of the higher Hierarchies — what is working over from earlier incarnations is asserting itself. You can easily convince yourselves of this by handling the human skull, where you find individual mounds and depressions. No skull is exactly similar to another, hence there is no universally valid Phrenology. Each case must be studied individually. The forces working in the formation of the human skull come over from earlier incarnations and their impetus ceases after the first three and a half years of life. During these years everything is still pliable and the spirit is still able to work in it. Later on, everything has become solid and the spirit can no longer come into play.
What, then, is responsible for the fact that in later life we are no longer able to work with these forces? To what is this due? It is due to the essential character of our Earth evolution. When the ‘I’ has become conscious of itself in the body, this presupposes that the body is very firmly knit and can no longer be elaborated by the forces just described. There are also forces which essentially belong to man as a generic being, which mould him in accordance with the architectural principles of the human form. Were we to work in the physical body with the forces of early childhood for more than the three and a half years which are the appropriate period, the physical body could not .survive. It would be rent asunder, shattered, for now the forces by which the physical body is attached to the line of physical heredity become operative. If the action of the other forces did not cease, the body would break up, disintegrate. The Son of Man within us brings about our destruction; the Son of God within us cannot offer resistance to the Son of Man after a period of three years. For all that, we bear this Son of God within us. These forces work within the physical body throughout life but they cannot participate directly in the up-building process. If we look within our own inmost being, however, we can nevertheless find the continuation of the Ego with the ‘telephonic connection’. It is only that the physical body has become too coarse, too solid, too wooden to enable the Son of God to mould it any further.
Thus the best forces are present in us during the first three to three and a half years of childhood. The whole of life is nourished by them but they are obscured. In an entirely different form they are nevertheless present in the later years of life. We are permeated by these forces but cannot allow them to come to direct expression. When through Spiritual Science we endeavour to acquire ideas and conceptions of the higher worlds, this will be all the easier, the more forces have remained in us of those that were within us during the first three years when our ‘I’, our Ego, was within us but without self-consciousness. The fresher, the more flexible these forces have remained, the less time-worn they have become in advanced age, the more easily we can bring about transformation in ourselves through these spiritual forces.
It is the very best part of manhood that we have within us during these early years, only the solid physical body prevents us from using these forces then to the fullest extent. Even if someone in his later years succeeds in developing them to a special extent, he cannot transform his physical body which is by no means as pliable as wax. But if through esoteric wisdom he is able to use these forces to the full, their power streams through the tips of his fingers, and he acquires the gift of healing, of health-bestowal, through the laying on of hands — if, that is to say, these spiritual forces are still active. They can no longer transform his body but when they stream out from him they bring about healing.
The goal of Earth evolution is to enable these forces — the best that are within us — to take effect. When the evolution of the Earth is at an end and we have lived through our many incarnations, we must consciously have permeated our whole being with the forces that are within us unconsciously during the first years of childhood. There is a difference between bearing these forces unconsciously and bearing them consciously. At the end of Earth evolution human beings must be completely permeated by this childhood consciousness. And then, because the process of expansion will be slow, the body will not burst asunder.
In world-evolution a prototype of penetration of the forces of childhood into mankind was necessary. Needless to say, this prototype could not be a child. It was necessary that an individual of a certain age should be permeated in full consciousness by the same forces by which all human beings are permeated unconsciously in earliest childhood. Suppose we were to remove his Ego from a human being, empty his Ego and pour into him the forces that are active in a child during the first years of life, he would become conscious of these forces with his developed brain. What had been active within him during the first years of childhood would become a conscious experience in him. For how long is a human life on Earth able to endure this? For no longer than three years, for then the body would be shattered. If there can be no transformation — in the case of man this takes place in the process of ordinary evolution — the human body can endure this state of things for no longer than three years. Were it possible for any being to bear the forces of early childhood consciously within himself, the karma of that being must be so adjusted that the physical body involved is shattered.
It is conceivable that what man attains through all the incarnations leading to the goal of Earth evolution can be brought to the notice of the world by a prototype, by an individual whose bodily nature makes it possible for his Ego to depart and be replaced by another Being. In such a case the human body would not tolerate the presence of the other Being for longer than three years. It would be the karma of the body to be shattered. And this actually happened. At the baptising by John in the Jordan we see this human body which made it possible for the Ego, the Zarathustra-Ego, to depart. A Being, the Christ Being, came down into this body, indwelt it for three years but could remain in it no longer. After three years the body broke up when the Mystery of Golgotha took place.
What was able to live for three years in a human body at that time must be tended and cherished by man and gradually, in the course of incarnations, made a living reality in his soul, in order that at the end of the incarnations it may be present in full strength.
A remarkable connection is apparent between the Son of God in man and the Christ Event. Everything to be found in the domain of occultism can be illuminated from different sides. Proofs such as are demanded by conventional science cannot satisfy occultism. Proofs must convince by virtue of truths being gathered together from all sides, truths which sustain and support each other. We can study the Christ Event from still another side by deriving it, as has been done today, from the very nature of man. We realise that the best way to understand the Christ is to develop the attitude of soul arising from such a truth. We must realise too that in a fully evolved human body, there was present in Jesus of Nazareth through the Baptism in Jordan a Being who is present in every human body, but unconsciously only, during the first three years of life. And then we must contemplate the three years when this child has become conscious. That is how understanding of the Christ can best be acquired.
Ancient utterances have different meanings. One such meaning is disclosed by the words: Unless you become as a little child you cannot enter into the Kingdoms of Heaven. There we have a glimpse of the deeper meaning often contained in single sentences of the religious texts.
Let us contemplate this life of childhood especially in the period when it is actually developing. Science today does not know much about what can contribute to the study of the true nature of man. In the first place we must realise clearly that from the very beginning man differs quite radically from all other beings. Take an example near at hand, let us say, an ape. Its gait is determined from the very outset because the characteristic equilibrium is established by the arrangement of its limbs. The human being cannot, to begin with, walk at all, for he must first bring about equilibrium in his body. Through the work of his Ego his limbs must be brought into the positions which enable him to stand upright and walk. Thus in the first years of childhood the Ego must work not only at moulding the brain but must also bring about the equilibrium that is not, from the beginning, established in the human being as it is in the animal. The bones of the human being must first be arranged in the angles necessary for the main-tenance of his centre of gravity, in order that he may be able to walk and make his way about. This capacity is implanted from the beginning in every animal, up to those of the highest species, whereas in the human being it must be acquired gradually though the work of the Ego. Before then he crawls about or falls down. He would be fettered to the same spot on the ground if his Ego was not at work during the first three years of his life.
We have already heard that the Ego works at man’s brain, sculps and moulds it into a form that enables him later on to become a being possessed of intelligence. Thus it can be said that we acquire the capacity to recognise the truth in life as a result of the Ego having moulded its instrument. It must become obvious to us that there can be no further life unless we bring it about by work and activity.
What further distinguishes man so radically from all other things is his speech. That capacity too must be acquired through the work of his Ego. Man is not, from the beginning, organised for speech. Cows utter the sound ‘moo’ but that is not speech. The acquisition of speech depends upon the Ego sojourning among other human Egos. If a human being were transported to a remote island he would not learn to speak. The coming of the second teeth is due to heredity; so too is the fact that we grow. The teeth would come even if we were on a lonely island. But it is through the Ego that we acquire the faculty of speech. These differences are important. Thus in human life, speech is the third faculty acquired through the Ego.
Through the activity of these forces the human beings finds his way on Earth, he recognises the truth and lives his life in common with the surrounding world. If a child were able to express what he thus acquires, he could say: the Ego within me transforms me in such a way that I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. Think of this translated into a higher, spiritual reality, and let us ask: what will be said to man by a Being who with fully conscious forces of childhood lives for three years in a human body? Such a Being will say: “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.” In very fact, when the forces of childhood rise to a higher, fully conscious stage, there we have the great prototype of what is revealed at a lower stage in the child. Through Christ Jesus it becomes a basic, fundamental truth. Not only is the utterance “Except ye become as little children, ye cannot enter into the kingdoms of Heaven” incomprehensible without a knowledge of what Spiritual Science has to say about the connection with the life-giving forces of early childhood, but it is also true that we can best understand the radical utterance, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life” when we recognise its prototype in what the Ego achieves by its activity in the body of early childhood.
Such truths make it possible for us to generate — if not for the body at least for the soul — some measures of the life-giving forces we need on the Earth. The man of today who does not acknowledge the reality of the spiritual world has no genuine feeling for such facts. If you go to a number of individuals in outer life and tell them something of what has been said here today: ‘Unless you become as a little child you cannot enter into the kingdoms of Heaven’ — you will find that these people say: “Well, yes, these are quite clever analogies, but what use can be made of them?” They consider it more advantageous to go to some blood-curdling drama, if not anything worse! Those who have no feelings that these facts are significant will regard them as unjustifiable because it is in the feeling for such things that there lies the power to instil the gift of childhood into life. If we lack enthusiasm for the idea of Christ being compared with the activity of the human Ego during the first years of life, if we reject such a comparison as unjustifiable, then we have no faculty for kindling to life the forces of earliest childhood. Wizened scholars have so little power to awaken these forces and thereby to approach the reality of the spiritual world! But if we have the enthusiasm to concern ourselves with such truths, we can permeate our whole being with these forces.
Thereby something is given to an individual which enables him to uphold the principle of universality in his Christianity. Have I not often said that we are only at the beginning of a true conception of Christ? Until the twelfth or thirteenth century there was no possibility of hearing the Bible read. Christians were obliged to rely upon preaching and the proclamations of evangelists. Then came the Christianity which adhered strictly to the Bible, deriving its knowledge from that one source. We are not mindful of Christ’s power if we ignore His words: “I am with you until the end of the ages.” We are Christians when we realise that after Christ had once revealed Himself He will do so again, for anyone who has eyes to see Him. The content of the Gospels by no means represents all that Christ has to say. We should not constantly be quoting the words: “You could not bear it now”. Humanity must become mature enough to understand Christ’s declaration.
It also follows that we ought to be able to adopt the right attitude to what is revealed through the Baptism by John, namely, the manifestation of the health-giving, fertile forces of early childhood. That in itself would be a fruitful conception. Even if there were no human being who knew anything about the name of Christ or about the Gospels — we do not overstress the importance of names — what is all-important is the Being Himself. We leave it to others to say that an individual who does not swear allegiance to Buddha is no true adherent. What matters to us is the reality, not the name. This is the principle we follow when, for example, we recognise that during the first years of life there are within the human being forces which once streamed down into the body of Jesus of Nazareth.
Think of a remote, lonely island to which no single record of the Mystery of Golgotha has ever found its way. If human beings there through their spiritual life consciously draw the powers of earliest childhood into themselves until they reach old age, then they are Christians in the true sense of the word. In such circumstances there is no need for them to search in the Gospels, for Christianity in itself is a living power and will evolve to further and further stages.
There is a difference here that must be strictly remembered. We shall realise ever more clearly how intimately Christ’s mission is connected with the very being of the Earth. We shall be able to say that the mission of Christ is something that can be understood by contemplating man as he is today. The need to be filled with the power of Christ, to make a reality of Paul’s affirmation “Christ in me”, is confirmed when we say that the whole of our life must be dedicated to the transformation of what is present within us during the first years of childhood. Then the Christ is in us in very truth.
This realisation makes it possible to have a wide understanding of Christianity and reveals the prospect that it will take quite different forms. Times will come when Christ will be referred to in an entirely different way, when sources of an essentially different character will be in existence, when there will be no reference to the external history of the existence of such a Being, but when this fact will be revealed by the actual consciousness of mankind.
These matters are brought forward because they show how deeply Spiritual Science can influence man’s life of feeling and must become actual practice. It is only then that what we find in original sources becomes really intelligible to us. For many human beings, however, these original sources are verily a book with seven seals. At the end of the Earth’s existence, a man of today will have reached the stage where his soul is inwardly Christian in the truest sense. Today he is only at the beginning of this development. Nevertheless Christ lives within him and will do so in an ever wider sense through all the following incarnations.
What was the state of things before Christ came to the Earth, before He revealed Himself on the Earth? The Ego was then only in the preparatory stage, for it is by Christ that the Ego is given its very purpose and meaning. When the mission of a Being is in the preparatory stage, his predecessors must help him. Until the Mystery of Golgotha, man’s Ego was still at the stage of preparation. Until then it was necessary for other Beings to help man, Beings who had reached the human stage previously, namely, during the
Old Moon embodiment of the Earth. We know that these are the Beings of the Hierarchy immediately above us — the Angels. Their evolution has reached a stage higher than that reached by man. It was chiefly these Beings who took over the guidance of humanity before man was in a position to say: Christ gives my Ego purport and meaning. Man could not lead himself to Christ but had perforce to be led to Him by the Beings who are his elder Brothers.
The Bible records this with wonderful accuracy. Let us think of John, the forerunner of Christ Jesus. The true forerunner could not have been the Being who is presented in external history, for as we now know man had as yet no Ego. Therefore it cannot be strictly true to say that John the Baptist himself was Christ’s forerunner. Remarkably, the Gospel of St. Mark begins at once with the words: “I send my Angel before thee, who shall prepare thy way.” We must pay attention to something that theologians have, it is true, noticed in a very abstract form but ignored as a concrete reality. The external world is primarily maya. We must learn to see it in the right way and then it is no longer maya. The narration of the external events connected with John the Baptist on the physical plane, is maya. We do not understand them. The biblical picture of John the Baptist is maya. The truth is that an Angel lives in John, takes possession of his soul, and it is this Being who leads men to Christ. John is the sheath in which the Angel is revealed. The reborn Elijah was able and ready to receive into himself the Angel who entered into and spoke out of him, using him — John — simply as an instrument. The story given in the Bible is accurate in every detail.
It can therefore be said that it was only because the Beings who had reached the human stage on the Old Moon embodiment of the Earth became the leaders of man in the pre-Christian era that he could be prepared to receive the Ego. In point of fact, all the leaders of humanity in the pre-Christian era could be leaders because Angels were working through them. What would happen in the case of a man of the modern age? In pre-Christian times the Angel could work in a man because he had no Ego of his own. Since the Christ has come, man can turn to Him and a power enters into him instead of the Angel, as formerly. Man today must take the Christ into himself through devotion and reverence. John could still say: Not I but the Angel in me has been sent and uses me as the instrument for preparing the way. Man must say as did St. Paul: ‘Not I, but Christ in me.’ Man must learn to understand Christ in the light of the teaching of Spiritual Science.
What has been said today about the first three years of childhood can, for example, usefully be emphasised. Man is ‘christianised’ when the truth is brought home to him that the forces at work during the age of earliest childhood shed their sunlike radiance over the whole of life. Modern science, on the other hand, is ultimately responsible for the onset of senility, for resistance to the sunlike forces in early childhood, for ossification of parts of the brain, and a great deal else besides.
From such truths we realise that it is possible to understand the living truth of Christianity even when original records are left out of account and we simply study the nature and being of man. If our understanding of Spiritual Science is such that we do not simply say, ‘now I know that man consists of four members — physical, etheric, astral bodies and Ego’ but realise that what matters is to know how these single members are interconnected in his constitution — then we can become aware that the Ego working in early childhood is related to another entity, that the first Ego is like a sheath and that after about three years its connection with all the members of the rest of man’s nature changes entirely.
This knowledge acquires genuine value when it becomes a power within us and when we say to ourselves that because in the future many incarnations lie ahead of us we can develop what is in us to further and further stages of consciousness, that we can enable the forces of the higher man, The Son of God within us, to be victorious over the Son of Man, thereby rising higher in each succeeding incarnation until the Earth reaches its goal. The Earth then becomes a corpse just as the individual human being becomes a physical corpse; the corpse sinks into the Earth and the soul rises into the spiritual world. This is what will also happen to the Earth as a whole.
If we think of the Earth as the body of all humanity, we can say: the Earth dies as a corpse, dissolves into the substance of the Universe, is pulverised in order to be used in a new material form. But man rises into spiritual worlds in order to pass over into the next planetary existence. It behoves us to remember that these are no abstract words.
Strange to say, there are people who believe that our Earth, together with the Sun and the other planets, was once a great nebula and nothing else, that then Sun, Earth and man himself, through the consolidation of matter, came into existence, that he will evolve to further and further stages and will eventually be entombed in the Earth the whole process being an aimless episode!
In future histories of civilization great efforts will have to be made to understand this patho-logical fantasy, to grasp how it could have been possible for man’s imagination to become sickly enough to accept this as a serious conception. To uphold the Kant-Laplace theory is exactly the same as to think that man can be explained by studying the dust produced by his cremation. Such science is pernicious, incapable of engendering living power in the soul.
The aim of Spiritual Science is to kindle the power to develop our stature as human beings to higher and higher stages, no longer connecting ourselves with the dust of the Earth but evolving towards a new planetary existence.