Donate books to help fund our work. Learn more→

The Rudolf Steiner Archive

a project of Steiner Online Library, a public charity

Reincarnation and Karma
Their Significance in Modern Culture
GA 135

5. Reincarnation and karma: the fundamental ideas of the anthroposophical world conception. The strengthening of the moral life

5 March 1912, Berlin

For many years past we have been studying anthroposophical truths, details of anthroposophical knowledge, trying to approach them from different sides and to assimilate them. In the course of the lectures now being given, and those yet to come, it will be well to ask ourselves what Anthroposophy should and can give to the men of our time. We know a good deal of the content of Anthroposophy and we can therefore approach the question with a certain basis of understanding.

We must above all remember that the anthroposophical life, the anthroposophical Movement itself, must be clearly distinguished—in our minds at any rate—from any kind of special organisation, from anything to which the name “Society” might be given. The whole character of modern life will of course make it more and more necessary for those who want to cultivate Anthroposophy to unite in a corporate sense; but this is made necessary more by the character of life outside than by the content or attitude of Anthroposophy itself. Anthroposophy in itself could be made known to the world in the same way as anything else—as chemistry, for instance—and its truths could be accessible just as in the case of the truths of chemistry or mathematics. How an individual assimilates Anthroposophy and makes it a real impulse in his life could then be a matter for the individual himself. A Society or any kind of corporate body for the cultivation of Anthroposophy is made necessary because Anthroposophy as such comes into our epoch as something new, as entirely new knowledge, which must be received into the spiritual life of men. Those who have not entered the sphere of anthroposophical life need a special preparation of their souls and hearts as well as the constitution of soul belonging to the present age. Such preparation can be acquired only through the life and activities in our groups and meetings. There we adapt ourselves to a certain trend of thinking and feeling, so that we realise the significance of matters which people in the outside world who know nothing of Anthroposophy will naturally regard as fantastic nonsense. It might, of course, be argued that Anthroposophy could also be made more widely known through public lectures given to entirely unprepared listeners; but those who belong to our groups in a more intimate sense will realise that the whole tone, the whole manner of delivering a lecture to an unprepared public must necessarily be different from that of a lecture given to those who through an inner urge and through their whole attitude, are able to take seriously what the general public would not yet be able to accept. Quite certainly this state of things will not improve in the immediate future—on the contrary, the opposition will become stronger and stronger. Opposition to Anthroposophy in every domain will increase in the outside world, just because it is in the highest degree necessary for our age, and because what is the most essential at any particular time always encounters the strongest resistance.

It may be asked: Why is this so? Why do human hearts resist so vehemently just what is most needed in their epoch? An anthroposophist should be able to understand this, but it is too complicated a matter to be made even remotely clear to an unprepared public.

The student of Anthroposophy knows of the existence of Luciferic forces, of Luciferic beings who have lagged behind the general process of evolution. They work through the hearts and souls of men and it is to their greatest advantage to launch their fiercest attacks at times when, in reality, there is the strongest urge towards the spiritual life. Because the opposition of the human heart against the progressive impulse in evolution originates from the Luciferic beings, and because these beings will launch their attacks when as it were they already have men by the throat, the resistance of human hearts will inevitably be strongest at such times. Hence we shall understand that the very reason why the most important truths for humanity have lived on from earlier times is that the strongest opposition had to be contended with. Anything that differs only slightly from what is customary in the world will rarely encounter fierce opposition; but what comes into the world because humanity has long been thirsting for but has not received it, will evoke violent attacks from the Luciferic forces. Therefore a “Society” is really nothing more than a rampart against this understandable attitude of the outside world. [1] Some form of association is necessary within the framework of which these things can be presented, with the feeling that in those to whom one speaks or with whom one is in contact there will be a certain measure of understanding, whereas others who have no link with such an association are oblivious of it all.

Everyone believes that what is given out in public is his own concern and that he has to pass judgment upon it; he is instigated, of course, by the Luciferic forces. From this we realise that it is indeed necessary to promulgate Anthroposophy and that Anthroposophy is bringing something essential into our age, something that is longed for by the present thirst and hunger for spiritual nourishment and—whatever the circumstances—will come in some form or other; for the Spiritual Powers who have dedicated themselves to the goals of evolution see to it that this shall happen.

We can therefore ask: What are the most important truths that should be implanted in humanity at the present time through Anthroposophy? Those for which there is the most intense thirst are the most essential. The answer to such a question is one that can very easily be misunderstood. For this reason it is necessary, to begin with, to make a distinction in our minds between Anthroposophy as such and the Anthroposophical Society. The mission of Anthroposophy is to bring new truths, new knowledge, to humanity, but a society can never—least of all in our age—be pledged to any particular tenets. It would be utterly senseless to ask: “What do you anthroposophists believe?” It is senseless to imagine that an “anthroposophist” means a person who belongs to the Anthroposophical Society, for that would be to assume that a whole society holds a common conviction, a common dogma. And that cannot be. The moment a whole society, according to its statutes, were pledged to a common dogma, it would cease to be a society and begin to be a sect. Here is the boundary where a society ceases to be one in the true sense of the word. The moment a man is pledged to hold a belief exacted by a society, we have to do with pure sectarianism. Therefore a society dedicated to the principles described in these lectures can be a society only from the aspect that it is under the right and natural spiritual impulse. It may be asked: “Who are the people who come together to hear something about Anthroposophy?” To this we may reply: “Those who have an urge to hear about spiritual things.” This urge has nothing dogmatic about it. For if a person is seeking for something without saying, “I shall find this or that,” but is really seeking, this is the common element which a society that does not wish to become a sect must contain. The question: What does Anthroposophy as such bring to humanity? is quite independent of this. Our reply must be: Anthroposophy as such brings to humanity something that is similar to all the great spiritual truths that have been brought to humanity, only its effect upon the human soul is more profound, more significant.

Among the subjects we have been studying in our lectures there are many that might be considered less distinctive from the point of view of something entirely new being presented to modern humanity. Nevertheless they are fundamental truths which do indeed penetrate into humanity as something new. We need not look very far to find this new element. It lies in the two truths which really belong to the most fundamental of all and bring increasing conviction to the human soul: these are the two truths of reincarnation and karma. It may be said that the first thing a really serious anthroposophist discovers along his path is that knowledge of reincarnation and karma is essential. It cannot, for example, be said that in Western culture, certain truths—such as the possibility of becoming conscious of higher worlds—present themselves through Anthroposophy as something fundamentally new. Anyone who has some knowledge of the development of Western thought knows of mystics such as Jacob Boehme or Swedenborg, or the whole Jacob Boehme school, and he knows too—although there has been much argument to the contrary—that it has always been considered possible for a man to rise from the ordinary sense-world to higher worlds. This, then, is not the element that is fundamentally new. And the same applies to other matters. Even when we are speaking of what is absolutely fundamental in evolution, for example, the subject of Christ, this is not the salient point as regards the Anthroposophical Movement as such; the essential point is the form which the subject of Christ assumes when reincarnation and karma are received as truths into the hearts of men. The light thrown upon the subject of Christ by the truths of reincarnation and karma—that is the essential point.

The West has been profoundly concerned with the subject of Christ. We need only be reminded of men in the days of the Gnosis, and of the time when esoteric Christianity was deepened by those who gathered under the sign of the Grail or of the Rose Cross. This, then, is not the fundamental question. It becomes fundamental and of essential significance for Western minds, for knowledge and for the needs of the religious life only through the truths of reincarnation and karma; so that those whose mental horizons have been widened by the knowledge of these truths necessarily expect new illumination to be shed on old problems. With regard to the knowledge of reincarnation and karma, however, all that can be said is that tentative indications are to be found in Western literature, for example, at the time of Lessing, who speaks of the subject in his essay, The Education of the Human Race. There are also other examples of how this question has dawned upon minds of a certain profundity. But for the truths of reincarnation and karma to become an integral part of human consciousness, assimilated by the hearts and souls of men, as in Anthroposophy—this is something that could not really happen until our own time. Therefore it can be said that the relation of a man of the modern age to Anthroposophy is characterised by the fact that certain antecedents have enabled reincarnation and karma to become matters of knowledge to him. That is the essential point. Everything else follows more or less as a matter of course if a man is able to acquire the right insight into the truths of reincarnation and karma.

In considering this aspect of the subject, we must also realise what it will mean for Western humanity and for humanity in general when reincarnation and karma become matters of knowledge which take their place in everyday life as other truths have done. In the near future, reincarnation and karma must pass into the consciousness of men far more deeply than was the case, for example, with the Copernican view of the universe. We need only remind ourselves of how rapidly this theory penetrated into the human mind. Only a comparatively short period in world-history has elapsed since the Copernican view of the universe first became generally known, yet it is now taught even in the elementary schools. As far as the effect upon the human soul is concerned, however, there is an essential difference between Copernicanism and the anthroposophical world-conception, in so far as the latter is based on the fundamental principles of reincarnation and karma. To be able to characterise the difference, one really needs a group of anthroposophists, of people who come together with good will to understand, for things would have to be said that would cause too great a shock to those outside the anthroposophical Movement.

Why is it that the Copernican view of the universe has been accepted so readily? Those who have heard me speak of it or of modern natural science in general know well that I pass no derogatory judgment on the modern scientific mode of thinking. Therefore in characterising the difference I shall not be misinterpreted when I say that for the acceptance of this world-picture, limited as it is to the presentation of external relationships and conditions of space, an epoch of superficiality was necessary! The reason why the Copernican theory took root so rapidly is none other than that for a certain period of time men became superficial. Superficiality was essential for the adoption of Copernicanism. Depth of soul—that is to say, the exact opposite—will be necessary for acceptance of the truths of Anthroposophy, especially of the fundamental truths of reincarnation and karma. If, therefore, the conviction grows in us to-day that these truths must become a much stronger and more widespread influence in the life of mankind, we must realise at the same time that we are standing at the boundary between two epochs: one, the epoch of superficiality, and the other, the epoch when the human soul and human heart must be inwardly deepened. This is what must be inscribed in our very souls if we are to be fully conscious of what Anthroposophy has to bring to humanity at the present time. And then comes the question: What form will life take under the influence of the knowledge of reincarnation and karma?

Here we must consider what it really means for the human soul and heart to recognise that reincarnation and karma are truths? What does it mean for the whole of man's consciousness, for his whole life of feeling and thinking? As anyone who reflects about these things can realise, it means no less than that through knowledge the Self of man grows beyond certain limits to which knowledge is otherwise exposed. In past times it was sharply emphasised that man could know and recognise only what lies between birth and death, that at most he could look up with faith to one who penetrates into a spiritual world as a knower. Such conviction grew with increasing strength. But this is not of very great significance when regarded merely from the aspect of knowledge; the subject becomes really significant when we pass from the aspect of knowledge to the moral aspect. It is then that the whole greatness and significance of the ideas of reincarnation and karma are revealed. A very great deal could be said in confirmation of this but we will confine ourselves to one aspect.

Think of the people belonging to earlier epochs of Western civilisation and the great majority of those living at the present time. Although they still cling to the belief that the being of man remains intact when he passes through the Gate of Death, it is imagined—because no thought is given to reincarnation and karma—that man's spiritual life after death is entirely separate from earthly existence. Apart from exceptional phenomena to which credence is given by those with spiritualistic leanings, when the dead are alleged to be working into this world, the current idea is that whatever takes place when a man has passed through the Gate of Death—be it punishment or reward—is remote from the earth as such, and that the further course of his life lies in a quite different sphere, a sphere beyond the earth.

Knowledge of reincarnation and karma changes this idea entirely. What is contained in the soul of a man who has passed through the Gate of Death has significance not only for a sphere beyond the earth, but the future of the earth itself depends upon what his life has been between birth and death. The earth will have the outer configuration that is imparted by the men who have lived upon it. The whole future configuration of the planet, as well as the social life of men in the future, depends upon how men have lived in their earlier incarnations. That is the moral element in the ideas of reincarnation and karma. A man who has assimilated these ideas knows: According to what I was in life, I shall have an effect upon everything that takes place in the future, upon the whole civilisation of the future! Something that up to now has been present in a limited degree only—the feeling of responsibility—is extended beyond the bounds of birth and death by knowledge of reincarnation and karma. The feeling of responsibility is intensified, imbued with the deep moral consequences of these ideas. A man who does not believe in them may say: “When I have passed through the Gate of Death I shall be punished or rewarded for what I have done here; I shall experience the consequences of this existence in another world; that other world, however, is ruled over by spiritual Powers of some kind or other, and they will prevent what I have within me from causing too much harm to the world as a whole.” A man who realises that the ideas of reincarnation and karma are based upon reality will no longer speak like this, for he knows that men's lives will be shaped according to what they have been in earlier incarnations.

The important point is that the fundamental ideas of the anthroposophical conception of the world will pass over into the souls and hearts of men and arise as moral impulses undreamed of in the past times. The feeling of responsibility will be intensified to a degree that was formerly impossible, and other moral insights will necessarily follow. As human beings learning to live under the influence of the ideas of reincarnation and karma we shall come to know that our life cannot be assessed on the basis of what has taken expression in one life between birth and death, but that a period extending over many lives must be taken into account.

When we encounter another human being with the attitude that has prevailed hitherto, we feel sympathy or antipathy towards him, strong or moderate affection, and the like. The whole attitude of one man to another in the present age is in reality the outcome of the view that life on the earth is limited to the one period between birth and death. We live as we should after all be bound to live if it were true that man is on the earth only once. Our attitude to parents, brothers, sisters, friends, is coloured by the belief that we have only one life on the earth.

A vast transformation will take place in life when the ideas of reincarnation and karma are no longer theories held by a few people as is the case nowadays—for they are still largely matters of theory. It can truly be said that there are numbers of people to-day who believe in reincarnation and karma; but they act as if there were no such realities, as though life were actually confined to the one period between birth and death. Nor can it be otherwise, for habits change less quickly than ideas. Only when we introduce into our lives right and concrete ideas of reincarnation and karma, only then shall we find how life can be fertilised by them.

As human beings we begin life in the circle of our parents, brothers and sisters, and other relatives; in our early years those around us are there owing to natural factors such as blood-relationship, proximity and the like. Then, as we grow up, we see how these circles expand, how we enter into quite different connections with human beings, connections that are no longer dependent on blood-relationship. These things must be seen in the light of karma and then they will illumine life in an entirely new way. Karma becomes of significance only when we grasp it as a concrete factor, when we apply to life itself the facts brought to light by spiritual-scientific investigation. These facts can, of course, be discovered only by such investigation, but then they can be applied to life.

An important question in connection with karma is the following: How does it come about that at the beginning of the present life, for example, we are drawn to certain others through blood-relationship? Spiritual-scientific investigation of this question discovers that as a rule—for although specific facts come to light there are countless exceptions—the human beings with whom we came to be associated involuntarily at the beginning of our life, were close to us in a former life—in most cases the immediately preceding one—in middle life, in the thirties; then we chose them voluntarily in some way, drawn to them perhaps by our hearts. It would be quite erroneous to think that the people around us at the beginning of our present life are those with whom we were also together at the beginning of a former life. Not at the beginning, not at the end, but in the middle of one life we were associated, by our own choosing, with those who are now our blood-relations. It is frequently the case that a marriage partner whom someone has chosen deliberately will be related to him in the next life as father or mother, or brother or sister. Spiritual-scientific investigation shows that speculative assumptions are generally incorrect and as a rule contradicted by the actual facts.

When we consider the particular case just mentioned and try to grasp it as a finding of the unbiased investigations of Spiritual Science, our whole relation to life is widened. In the course of Western civilisation things have reached the point where it is hardly possible for a man to do otherwise than speak of ‘chance’ when thinking about his connection with those who are his blood-relations. He speaks of chance and in many respects believes in it. How indeed could he believe in anything else if life is thought to be limited to one period only between birth and death? As far as the one life is concerned a man will of course admit that he is responsible for the consequences of what he himself has brought about. But when he leads the Self beyond what happens between birth and death, when he feels this Self to be connected with other men of another incarnation, he feels responsible in the same way as he does for his own deeds in this life.

The general view that a man has himself karmically chosen his parents is not of any special significance, but we gain an idea of this ‘choosing’ which can actually be confirmed by other experiences of life when we realise that those whom we have chosen so unconsciously now, were chosen by us in a former life at an age when we were more conscious than at any other, when we were fully mature.

This idea may be unpalatable to some people to-day but it is true nevertheless. If a person is not satisfied with his kith and kin he will eventually come to know that he himself laid the basis of this dissatisfaction and that he must therefore provide differently for the next incarnation; and then the ideas of reincarnation and karma will become really fruitful in his life. The point is that these ideas are not there for the sake of satisfying curiosity or the like, but for the sake of our progress. When we know how family connections are formed, the ideas of reincarnation and karma will widen and enhance our feeling of responsibility.

The forces which bring down an individual human being into a family must obviously be strong. But they cannot be strong in the individual now incarnated, for they cannot have much to do with the world into which he has actually descended. Is it not comprehensible that the forces working in the deepest depths of the soul must stem from the past life when he himself brought about the connections by the strong impulse of friendship, of ‘conscious love,’ if it may be called so? Conscious forces prevailing in one life work as unconscious forces in the next. What happens more or less unconsciously is explained by this thought. It is most important, of course, that the facts should not be clouded by illusions; moreover the findings of genuine investigation almost invariably upset speculations. The logic of the facts cannot be discovered until afterwards and nobody should allow himself to be guided by speculation, for that will never bring him to the right vantage-point. He will always arrive at a point of view that is characteristic of a conversation of which I have already spoken. In a town in South Germany a theologian once said to me: “I have read your books and have realised that they are entirely logical; so the thought has occurred to me that because they are so logical their author may perhaps have arrived at their content through pure logic.” So if I had taken pains to write a little less logically I should presumably have gone up in the estimation of that theologian, because he would then have realised that the facts presented were not discovered through pure logic! Anyone, however, who studies the writings thoroughly will perceive that the contents were put into the form of logic afterwards but were not discovered through logic. I at any rate could have done no such thing, of that I assure you! Perhaps others might have been capable of it.

Regarded in this way, these things bring home to us the deep significance of the idea that the most important impulses proceeding from Anthroposophy must necessarily be moral impulses. Emphasis has been laid to-day upon the feeling of responsibility. In the same way we might speak of love, of compassion and the like, all of which present different aspects in the light of the ideas of reincarnation and karma. That is why through the years it has been considered of such importance, even in public lectures, always to relate Anthroposophy to life, to the most immediate phenomena of life. We have spoken of “The Mission of Anger,” of “Conscience,” of “Prayer,”2See: Metamorphoses of the Soul. Vol 1 and Metamorphoses of the Soul. Vol 2 of the different ages in the life of the human being, approaching all these things in the light in which they must be approached if we assume that the ideas of reincarnation and karma are true. The transforming power of these ideas in life has thus been brought home to us. In reality the main part of our studies has been to consider the effect of these fundamental ideas upon life. Even if it is not always possible in abstract words to convey the significance of reincarnation and karma for the heart, for conscience, for the character, for prayer, in such a way that we are able to say: “If we accept the ideas of reincarnation and karma, it follows that ...”—nevertheless all our studies are illumined by them. The important thing for the immediate future is that everything—not only the science of the soul but the other sciences too—shall be influenced by these ideas.

If you study a lecture such as the last public one on “Death in Man, Animal, and Plant,” you will see that it was a matter of showing how men will learn to think of death in plant, animal and man when they discern in themselves that which stretches beyond the single human life. It was made clear that the Self is different in each case. In man there is an individual Ego, in the animal there is a group-soul, and in the plant we have to do with part of the whole planetary soul. In the case of the plant, what we see outwardly as dying and budding is to be conceived of simply as a process of falling asleep and waking. In the animal there is again a difference; here we find a certain degree of resemblance to man inasmuch as in a single incarnation a self comes into some kind of evidence. But in man alone, who himself brings about his incarnations, we realise that death is the guarantee of immortality and that the word ‘death’ can be used in this sense only in the case of man. In using the word ‘death’ in the general sense, therefore, it must be emphasised that dying has a different signification according to whether we are speaking of man, or animal, or plant.

When the anthroposophist is able to accept the ideas of reincarnation and karma in the form in which we must present them, as distinct from earlier conceptions such as are found, for example, in Buddhism, his studies will lead him quite naturally to other things. That is why our work has been mainly devoted to studying what effect the ideas of reincarnation and karma can have upon the whole of human life. In this connection it is obvious that the work of any anthroposophical association or society must be in conformity with the mission of Anthroposophy. It is therefore understandable that when we speak about questions which may seem to those outside Anthroposophy to be the most important, the fundamental truths are the basis upon which we speak of matters closely concerning every Western soul. It is quite conceivable that a man might accept from Anthroposophy those things that have been described to-day as fundamentally new and not concern himself at all with any of the differences between the various religions, for the Science of Comparative Religion is by no means an essential feature of modern Spiritual Science. A great deal of research is devoted to the subject of Comparative Religion to-day and in comparison with it the studies pursued in certain societies connected with Spiritual Science are by no means the more profound. The point of real importance is that in Anthroposophy all these things shall be illumined by the ideas of reincarnation and karma.

In another connection still the feeling of responsibility will be essentially enhanced under the influence of these ideas. If we consider what has been said to-day about blood-relationship and companions once freely chosen by ourselves, a certain antithesis comes into evidence: What in one life is the most inward and intimate impulse, is in the next life the most outwardly manifest. When in one incarnation our deepest feelings of affection go out to certain human beings, we are preparing an outer relationship for another incarnation—a blood-relationship, maybe.

The same principle applies in another sphere. The way in which we think about some matter that may seem to us devoid of reality in one incarnation will be the most determinative factor in the impulses of the next; the quality of our thinking, whether we approach a truth lightly or try to verify it by every means at our command, whether we have a sense for truth or a tendency to fanaticism—all this, as the result of assimilating the ideas of reincarnation and karma, will have a bearing upon our evolution. What is hidden within our being in the present incarnation will be most in evidence in the next. A person who tells many untruths or is inclined to take things superficially will be a thoughtless character in the next or a later incarnation; for what we think, how we think, what attitude we have to truth, in other words what we are inwardly in this incarnation, will be the standard of our conduct in the next. If, for example, in this incarnation, we too hastily form a derogatory judgment of someone who if really put to the test might prove to be a good or even a moderately good man, and we carry this thought through life, we shall become unbearable, quarrelsome people in the next incarnation. Here is another illustration of the importance of widening and intensifying the moral element in the soul.

It is very important that special attention should be paid to these things and that we should realise the significance of taking into our very soul what is really new, together with everything else that with the ideas of reincarnation and karma penetrates as a revitalising impulse into the spiritual development of the present age . . .

My aim has been to bring home to you the importance of reflecting upon what constitutes the fundamentally new element in Anthroposophy. This of course does not mean that an anthroposophical society is one that believes in reincarnation and karma. It means that just as an age was once ready to receive the Copernican theory of the universe, so is our own age ready for the ideas of reincarnation and karma to be brought into the general consciousness of humanity. And what is destined to happen in the course of evolution will happen, no matter what powers rise up against it. When reincarnation and karma are truly understood, everything else follows of itself in the light of these truths.

It is certainly useful to have considered the fundamental distinction between those who are interested in Anthroposophy and those who oppose it. The distinction does not really lie in the acceptance of a higher world, but in the way thoughts and conceptions change in the light of the ideas of reincarnation and karma. And so to-day we have been studying something that may be regarded as the essential kernel of anthroposophical thought.