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An Occult Physiology
GA 128

1. The Being of Man

20 March 1911, Prague

This lecture-cycle deals with a subject which concerns Man very closely, namely, the exact nature and life of Man himself. Although so close to man, because it concerns himself; the subject is a difficult one to approach. For if we turn our attention to the challenge ”Know thyself!”, a challenge that has forced itself upon man through all the ages, as we may say, from mystic, occult heights, we see at once that a real, true self-knowledge is very hard of attainment. This applies not only to individual, personal self-knowledge, but above all to knowledge of the human being as such. Indeed it is precisely because man is so far from knowing his own being and has such a long way to go in order to know himself, that the subject we are about to discuss in the course of these few days will be in a certain respect something alien to us, something for which much preparation is necessary. Moreover it is not without reason that I myself have only reached the point where I can at last speak upon this theme as the result of mature reflection covering a long period of time. For it is a theme which cannot be approached with any prospect of arriving at a true and honest observation unless a certain attitude, often left out of account in ordinary scientific observation, be adopted. This attitude is one of reverence in the presence of the essential nature and Being of Man. It is, then, of vital importance that we maintain this attitude as a fundamental condition underlying the following reflections.

How can one truly maintain this reverence? In no other way, than by first disregarding what he appears to be in everyday life, whether it be oneself or another is of no consequence, and then by uplifting ourselves to the conception: Man, with all that he has evolved into, is not here for his own sake; he is here as revelation of the Divine Spirit, of the whole World. He is a revelation of the Godhead of the World! And, when a man speaks of aspiring after self-knowledge, of aspiring to become ever more and more perfect, in the spiritual-scientific sense which has just been indicated, this should not be due to the fact that he desires merely from curiosity, or from a mere craving or knowledge, to know what man is; but rather that he feels it to be his duty to fashion ever more and more perfectly this representation, this revelation, of the World Spirit through Man, so that he may find some meaning in the words, “to remain unknowing is to sin against Divine destiny!” For the World Spirit has implanted in us the power to have knowledge; and, when we do not will to acquire knowledge, we refuse what we really ought not to refuse, namely, to be a revelation of the World Spirit; and we represent more and more, not a revelation of the World Spirit, but a caricature, a distorted image of it. It is our duty to strive to become ever increasingly an image of the World Spirit. Only when we can give meaning to these words, “to become an image of the World Spirit”; only when it becomes significant for us in this sense to say, “We must learn to know, it is our duty to learn to know,” only then can we sense aright that feeling of reverence we have just demanded, in the presence of the Being of Man. And for one who wishes to reflect, in the occult sense, upon the life of man, upon the essential quality of man's being, this reverence before the nature of man is an absolute necessity, for the simple reason that it is the only thing capable of awakening our spiritual sight, our entire spiritual faculty for seeing and beholding the things of the spirit, of awakening those forces which permit us to penetrate into the spiritual foundation of man's nature. Anyone who, as seer and investigator of the Spirit, is unable to have the very highest degree of reverence in the presence of the nature of man, who cannot permeate himself to the very fibres of his soul with the feeling of reverence before man's nature, must remain with closed eyes (however open they may be for this or that spiritual secret of the world) to all that concerns what is really deepest in the Being of Man. There may be many clairvoyants who can behold this or that in the spiritual environment of our existence; yet, if this reverence is lacking, they lack also the capacity to see into the depths of man's nature, and they will not know how to say anything rightly with regard to what constitutes the Being of Man.

In the external sense the teaching about life is called physiology. This teaching should not here be regarded in the same way as in external science but as it presents itself to the spiritual eye; so that we may look beyond the forms of the outer man, beyond the form and functions of his physical organs into the spiritual, super-sensible foundation of the organs, of the life-forms and life processes. And since it is not our intention here to pursue this “occult physiology,” as it may be called, in any unreal way, it will be necessary in several cases to refer with entire candour to things which from the very beginning will sound rather improbable to anyone who is more or less uninitiated. At the same time, it may be stated that this cycle of lectures, even more than some others I have delivered, forms a whole, and that no single part of any one lecture, especially the earlier ones—for much that is to find expression in the course of this cycle will have to be affirmed without restraint—should be torn from its context and judged separately. On the contrary, only after having heard the concluding lectures will it be possible to form a judgment with regard to what really has been said. For this reason, therefore, it will be necessary to proceed in a somewhat different way, in this occult physiology, from that of external physiology. The foundations for our introductory statements will be confirmed by what meets us at the conclusion. We shall not be called upon to draw a straight line, as it were, from the beginning to the end; but we shall proceed in a circle so that we shall return again, at the end, to the point from which we started.

It is an examination, a study, of Man, that is to be presented here. At first he appears before our external senses in his outer form. We know, of course, that to what in the first place the layman with his purely external observation can know concerning man, there is to-day a very great deal which science has added through research. Therefore, when considering what we are able to know of the human being at the present time through external experience and observation, we must of necessity combine what the layman is in a position to observe in himself and others with what science has to say, including those branches of scientific observation which come to their results through methods and instruments worthy of our admiration.

If we bear in mind first, purely as regards external man, all that a layman may observe in him (or may perhaps have learned from some sort of popular description of the nature of man), then it will perhaps not seem incomprehensible if, from the very beginning, attention is called to the fact that even the outer shape of man, as it meets us in the outside world, really consists of a duality. And for anyone who wishes to penetrate into the depths of human nature, it is absolutely necessary that he becomes conscious of the fact, that even external man, as regards his form and stature, presents fundamentally a duality.

One part of man, which we can clearly distinguish, consists of everything that is to be found enclosed in organs affording the greatest protection against the outside world: that is, all that we may include within the region of the brain and the spinal cord. Everything belonging in this connection to the nature of man, to the brain and spinal cord, is firmly enclosed in a secure protective bony structure. Taking a side view, we observe that what belongs to these two systems may be illustrated in the following way. If a in this diagram represents all the super-imposed vertebrae along the whole length of the spinal cord, and b the cranium and the bones of the skull, then inside the canal which is formed by these super-imposed vertebrae, as well as by the bones of the skull, is enclosed everything belonging to the sphere of the brain and the spinal cord. One cannot observe the human being without becoming conscious of the fact that everything pertaining to this region forms a totality complete within itself; and that the rest of man (which we might group physiologically in the most varied ways, as the neck, the trunk, the limb-structure) keeps its connection with all that we reckon as brain and spinal cord by means of more or less thread-like or ribbon-shaped formations, pictorially speaking, which must first break through this protective sheath, in order that a connection may be brought about between the portion enclosed within this bony structure and the portion attached to it as exterior nature of man. Thus we may say that, even to a superficial observation, everything constituting man proves itself to be a duality, the one portion lying within the bony structure we have described, the firm and secure protective sheath, and the other portion without.

At this point we must cast a purely superficial glance at that which lies within this bony structure. Here again we can quite easily distinguish between the large mass embedded within the skull-bones in the form of a brain, and that other portion which is appended to it like a stalk or cord and which, while organically connected with the brain, extends in this thread-like outgrowth of the brain into the spinal canal. If we differentiate between these two structures we must at once call attention to something which external science does not need to consider, something of which occult science, however, since its task is to penetrate into the depths of the being of things, must indeed take note. We must call attention to the fact that everything which we consider as the basis of a study of man refers, in the first place, only to Man. For the moment we enter into the deeper fundaments of the separate organs, we become aware (and we shall see in the course of these lectures that this is true) that any one of these organs, through its deeper significance in the case of man, may have an entirely different task from that of the corresponding organ in the animal world. Or, to put it more exactly, anyone who looks upon such things with the help of ordinary external science will say: “What you have been telling us here may be just as truly affirmed with reference to the animals.” That which is said here, however, with reference to the essential nature of the organs in the case of the human being, cannot be said in the same way with regard to the animal. On the contrary the occult task is to consider the animal by itself, and to investigate whether that which we are in a position to state regarding man with reference to the spine and the brain, is valid also for animals. For the fact that the animals closely related to man also have a spine and a brain does not prove that these organs, in their deeper significance, have the same task in both man and animal; just as the fact that a man holds a knife in his hand does not indicate whether it is for the purpose of carving a piece of veal or in order to erase something. In both cases we have to do with a knife; and he who considers only the form of the knife, that is, the knife as knife, will believe that in both cases it amounts to the same thing. In both cases, he who stands on the basis of a science that is not occult will say that we have to do with a spinal cord and a brain; and he will believe, since the same organs are to be found in man and animal, that these organs must therefore have the same function. But this is not true. It is something that has become a habit of thought in external science, and has led to certain inaccuracies; and it can be corrected only if external science will accustom itself gradually to enter into what can be stated from out of the depths of super-sensible research regarding the different living beings.

Now, when we consider the spinal cord on the one hand, and the brain on the other, we can easily see that there is a certain element of truth in something already pointed out more than a hundred years ago by thoughtful students of nature. There is a certain rightness in the statement that when one observes the brain carefully it looks, so to speak, like a transformed spinal cord. This becomes all the more intelligible when we remember that Goethe, Oken, and other similarly reflective observers of nature, turned their attention primarily to the fact that the skull-bones bear certain resemblances of form to the vertebrae of the spine. Goethe, for example, was impressed very early in his reflections by the fact that when one imagines a single vertebra of the spinal column transformed, levelled and distended there may appear through such a reshaping of the vertebrae the bones of the head, the skull-bones; thus, if one should take a single vertebra and distend it on all sides so that it has elevations here and there, and at the same time is smooth and uniform in its expansions, the form of the skull might in this way be gradually derived from a single vertebra. Thus we may in a certain respect call the skull-bones reshaped vertebrae.

Now, just as we can look upon the skull-bones which enclose the brain as transformed vertebrae, as the transformation of such bones as enclose the spinal cord, so we may also think of the mass of the spinal cord distended in a different way, differentiated, more complex, till we obtain out of the spinal cord, so to speak, through this alteration, the brain. We might likewise, for instance, think how out of a plant, which at first has only green foliage, there grows forth the blossom. And so we might imagine that through the reshaping of a spinal cord, through its elevation to higher stages, the entire brain could be formed. (Later on, it will become clear how this matter is to be considered scientifically.) We may accordingly imagine our brain as a differentiated spinal cord.

Let us now look at both of these organs from this standpoint. Which of the two must we naturally look upon as the younger? Certainly not that one which shows the derived form, but rather the one which shows the original form. The spinal cord is at the first stage, it is younger; and the brain is at the second stage, it has gone through the stage of a spinal cord, is a transformed spinal cord, and is therefore to be considered as the older organ. In other words, if we fix our attention upon this new duality which meets us in man as brain and spinal cord, we may say that all the latent tendencies, all the forces, which lead to the building of a brain must be older forces in man; for they must first, at an earlier stage, have formed the tendency to a spinal cord, and must then have worked further toward the re-forming of this beginning of a spinal cord into a brain. A second start, as it were, must therefore have been made, in which our spinal cord did not progress far enough to reach the second stage but remained at the stage of the spinal cord. We have, accordingly, in this spine and nerve system (if we wish to express ourselves with pedantic exactness) a spine of the first order; and in our brain a spinal cord of the second order, a re-formed spinal cord which has become older—a spinal cord which once was there as such, but which has been transformed into a brain.

Thus we have, in the first place, shown with absolute accuracy just what we need to consider when we fix our attention objectively upon the organic mass enclosed; within this protective bony sheath. Here, however, something else must be taken into account, namely, something which really can confront us only in the field of occultism. A question may suggest itself, when for instance we speak as we have just been doing about the brain and the spinal cord, taking perhaps the following form: when such a re-formation as this takes place, from the plan of an organ at a first stage to the plan of an organ at a second stage, the evolutionary process may be progressive, or it may be retrogressive. That is, the process before us may either be one which leads to higher stages of perfection of the organ, or one which causes the organ to degenerate and gradually to die. We might say therefore, when we consider an organ like our spinal cord as it is to-day, that it seems to us to be at the present time a relatively young organ since it has not yet succeeded in becoming a brain. We may think about this spinal cord in two different ways. First, we may consider that it has in itself the forces through which it may also one day become a brain. In that case, it would be in a position to pass through a progressive evolution, and to become what our brain is to-day; or secondly, we may consider that it has not at all the latent tendency to attain to this second stage. In that case its evolution would be leading toward extinction; it would pass into decadence and be destined to suggest the first stage and not to arrive at the second. Now, if we reflect that the groundwork of our present brain is what was once the plan or beginning of a spinal cord, we see that that former spinal cord undoubtedly had in it the forces of a progressive evolution, since it actually did become a brain. If, on the other hand, we consider at this point our present spinal cord, the occult method of observation reveals that what to-day is our spinal cord has not within itself, as a matter of fact, the latent tendency to a forward-directed evolution, but is rather preparing to conclude its evolution at this present stage.

If I may express myself grotesquely, the human being is not called upon to believe that one day his spinal cord, which now has the form of a slender string, will be puffed out as the brain is puffed out. We shall see later what underlies the occult view, so as to enable us to say this. Yet, through this simple comparison of the form of this organ in man and in the lower animals, where it first appears, you will find an external intimation of what has just been stated. In the snake, for example, the spine adds on to itself a series of innumerable rings behind the head and is filled out with the spinal cord, and this spinal column extends both forward and backward indefinitely. In the case of man the spinal cord, as it extends downward from the point where it is joined to the brain, actually tends more and more to a conclusion, showing less and less clearly that formation which it exhibits in its upper portions. Thus, even through external observation, one may notice that what in the case of the snake continues its natural evolution rearward, is here hastening toward a conclusion, toward a sort of degeneration. This is a method of observation through external comparison, and we shall see how the occult view affects it.

To summarise, then, we may say that within the bony structure of the skull we have a spinal cord which through a progressive development has become a brain, and is now at a second stage of its evolution; and in our spinal cord we have, as it were, the attempt once again to form such a brain, an attempt, however, which is destined to fail and cannot reach its full growth into a real brain.

Let us now proceed from this reflection to that which can be known even from an external, layman's observation, to the functions of the brain and the spinal cord. It is more or less known to everyone that the instrument of the so-called higher soul-activities, is in a certain respect, in the brain, that these higher soul-activities are directed by the organs of the brain. Furthermore, it is recognised that the more unconscious soul-activities are directed from the spinal cord. I mean those soul-activities in which very little deliberation interposes itself between the reception of the external impression and the action which follows it. Consider for a moment how you jerk back your hand when it is stung. Not very much deliberation intervenes between the sting and the drawing back. Such soul-activities as these are in fact, and with a certain justification, even regarded by natural science in such a way as to attribute to them the spinal cord as their instrument.

We have other soul-activities in which a more mature reflection interposes itself between the external impression and that which finally leads to action. Take, for example, an artist who observes external nature, straining every sense and gathering countless impressions. A long time passes, during which he works over these impressions in an inner activity of soul. He then proceeds to establish after a long interval through outward action what has grown, in long-continued soul-activity, out of the external impressions. Here there intervenes, between the outer impression and that which the man produces as a result of the outer impression, a richer activity of soul. This is also true of the scientific investigator; and, indeed, of anyone who reflects about the things that he wishes to do, and does not rush wildly at every external impression, who does not as it were, in reflex action fly into a passion like a bull when he sees the colour red, but thinks about what he wishes to do. In every instance where reflection intervenes, we encounter the brain as an instrument of soul-activity.

If we go still deeper into this matter we may say to ourselves: True, but how then does this soul-activity of ours, in which we use the brain, manifest itself? We perceive, to begin with, that it is of two different kinds, one of which takes place in our ordinary waking day-consciousness. In this consciousness we accumulate, through the senses, external impressions; and these we work over by means of the brain in rational reflection. To express it in popular language—we shall have to go into this still more accurately—we must picture to ourselves that these outer impressions find their way inside us through the doors of the senses, and stimulate certain processes in the brain. If we should wish, purely in connection with the external organisation, to follow what there takes place, we should see that the brain is set into activity through the stream of external impressions flowing into it; and that what this stream becomes, as a result of reflection, that is the deeds, the actions, which we ascribe to the instrumentality of the spinal cord.

Then, there also mingles in human life as it is to-day, between the wide-awake life of day and the unconscious life of sleep, the picture-life of dreams. This dream-life is a remarkable intermingling of the wide-awake life of day, which lays full claim to the instrument of our brain, and the unconscious life of sleep. Merely in outline, in a way that the lay thinker may observe for himself, we will now say something about this life of dreams.

We see that the whole of the dream-life has a strange similarity, from one aspect, to that subordinate soul-activity which we associate with the spinal cord. For, when dream-pictures emerge in our soul they do not appear as representations resulting from reflection, but rather by reason of a certain necessity, as, for instance, a movement of the hand results when a fly settles on the eye. In this latter case an action takes place as an immediate, necessary movement of defense. In dream-life something different appears, yet likewise because of an immediate necessity. It is not an action which here appears but rather a picture upon the horizon of the soul. Yet, just as we have no deliberate influence upon the movement of the hand in the wide-awake life of day, but make this movement of necessity, even so do we have no influence over the way that dream-pictures shape themselves, as they come and go in the chaotic world of dreams. We might say, therefore, that if we look at a man during his wide-awake life of day, and see something of what goes on within him in the form of reflex movements of all sorts, when he does things without reflecting, in response to external impressions; if we observe the sum-total of gestures and physiognomic expressions which he accomplishes without reflection, we then have a sum of actions which through necessity become a part of this man as soul-actions. If we now consider a dreaming man we have a sum of pictures, in this case something possessing the character not of action but of pictures, which work into and act upon his being. We may say, therefore, that just as in the wakeful life of day those human actions are carried out which arise and take shape without reflection, so do the dream-conceptions, chaotically flowing together, come about within a world of pictures.

Now, if we look back again at our brain, and wished to consider it as being in a certain way the instrument also of the dream-consciousness, what should we have to do? We should have to suppose that there is in some way or other something inside the brain which behaves in a way similar to the spinal cord that guides the unconscious actions. Thus, we have, as it were, to look upon the brain as primarily the instrument of the wide-awake soul-life, during which we create our concepts through deliberation, and underlying it a mysterious spinal cord which does not express itself; however, as a complete spinal cord but remains compressed inside the brain, and does not attain to actions. Whereas our spinal cord does attain to actions, even though these are not brought about through deliberation; the brain in this case induces merely pictures. It stops midway, this mysterious thing which lies there like the groundwork of a brain. Might we not say, therefore, that the dream-world enables us in a most remarkable way to point, as in a mystery, to that spinal cord lying there at the basis of the brain?

If we consider the brain, in its present fully-developed state, as the instrument of our wide-awake life of day, its appearance for us is that which it has when removed from the cavity of the skull. Yet there must be something there, within, when the wakeful life of day is blotted out. And here occult observation shows us that there actually is, inside the brain, a mysterious spinal cord which calls forth dreams. If we should wish to make a drawing of it, we could represent it in such a way that, within the brain which is connected with the world of ideas of the life of day, we should have an ancient mysterious spinal cord, invisible to external perception, in some way or other secreted inside it. I shall first state quite hypothetically that this spinal cord becomes active when man sleeps and dreams, and is active at that time in a manner characteristic of a spinal cord, namely, that it calls forth its effects through necessity. But, because it is compressed within the brain, it does not lead to actions, but only to pictures and picture-actions; for in dreams we act, as we know, only in pictures. So that because of this peculiar, strange, chaotic life that we carry on in dreams, we should have to point to the fact that underlying the brain, which we quite properly consider to be the instrument of our wide-awake life of day, is a mysterious organ which perhaps represents an earlier form of the brain—which has evolved itself to its present state out of this earlier form—and that this mysterious organ is active to-day only when the new form is inactive. It then reveals what the brain once was. This ancient spinal cord conjures up what is possible, considering the way it is enclosed, and induces, not completed actions, but only pictures.

Thus the observation of life leads us, of itself, to separate the brain into two stages. The very fact that we dream indicates that the brain has passed through two stages and has evolved to the wide-awake life of day. When, however, this wakeful day-time life is stilled, the ancient organ again exerts itself in the life of dreams. Thus we have first made types out of what external observation of the world furnishes us, which shows us that even observation of the soul-life adds meaning to what a consideration of the outer form can give us, namely, that the wide-awake life of day is related to dream-life in the same way as the perfected brain at the second stage of its evolution is related to its groundwork, to the ancient spinal cord which is at the first stage of its evolution. In a remarkable way, which we shall justify in the following lectures, occult, clairvoyant vision can serve us as a basis for a comprehensive observation of human nature, as it expresses itself in those organs enclosed within the bony mass of the skull and vertebrae.

In this connection you already know, from spiritual-scientific observations, that man's visible body is only one part of the whole human being, and that in the moment the seer's eye is opened the physical body reveals itself as enclosed, embedded, in a super-sensible organism, in what, roughly speaking, is called the “human aura.” For the present this may be here affirmed as a fact, and later we shall return to it to see how far the statement is justified. This human aura, within which physical man is simply enclosed like a kernel, shows itself to the seer's eye as having different colours. At the same time, we must not imagine that we could ever make a picture of this aura, for the colours are in continual movement; and every picture of it, therefore, that we sketch with pigment can be only an approximate likeness, somewhat in the same way that it is impossible to portray lightning, since one would always end by painting it only as a stiff rod, a rigid image. Just as it is never possible to paint lightning, so is it even less possible to do this in the case of the aura, because of the added fact that the auric colours are in themselves extraordinary unstable and mobile. We cannot, therefore, express it otherwise than to say that at best we are representing it symbolically.

Now, these auric colours show themselves as differing very remarkably, depending upon the fundamental character of the whole human organism. And it is interesting to call attention to the auric picture which presents itself to the clairvoyant eye, if we imagine the cranium and the spine observed from the rear. There we find that the appearance of that portion of the aura belonging to this region is such that we can only describe the whole man as embedded in the aura. Although we must remember that the auric colours are in a state of movement within the aura, yet it is evident that one of the colours is especially distinct, namely around the lower parts of the spine. We may call this greenish. And again we may mention another distinct colour, which does not in any other part of the body appear so beautiful as here, around the region of the brain; and this in its ground-tone is a sort of lilac-blue. You can get the best conception of this lilac-blue if you imagine the colour of the peach-blossom; yet even this is only approximate. Between this lilac-blue of the upper portion of the brain, and the green of the lower parts of the spine, we have other colour nuances surrounding the human being which are hard to describe, since they do not often appear among the ordinary colours present in the surrounding world of the senses. Thus, for instance, adjoining the green is a colour which is neither green, blue, nor yellow, but a mixture of all three. In short, there appear to us, in this intermediate space, colours which actually do not exist in the physical world of sense. Even though it is difficult to describe what is here within the aura, one thing may nevertheless be stated positively: beginning above with the puffed-out spinal cord, we have lilac-blue colour and then, coming down to the end of the spine, we have a more distinctly greenish shade.

This I wish to state as a fact, along with what has been said to-day in connection with a purely external observation of the human form and of human conduct. Following this, we shall endeavour to observe also that other part of the human being which is attached to the portion we have discussed to-day, in the form of neck, trunk, limbs, etc., as constituting the second part of the human duality, to the end that we may then be able to proceed to a consideration of what is presented to us in the complete interaction of this human duality.