Chance, Necessity and Providence
7. The Physical Body Binds Us to the Physical World, the Etheric Body to the Cosmos
5 September 1915, Dornach
I have often mentioned the fact that we can derive the right impulses from spiritual science only if we make the effort to progress ever further in a positive, concrete understanding of the spiritual beings about whom spiritual science wishes to instruct us. I have emphasized here before that we must of course realize first that human beings consist of a physical body, an etheric body, an astral body, and so on, and we need to know how these various members are related to one another. But if we are intent upon deriving the right impulses from spiritual science it is not enough to rest content with these abstractions. We need to become thoroughly familiarized with the interrelationships in the cosmos whereby these members of the human entelechy are incorporated into the entire cosmic process.
Our physical bodies incorporate us into the physical world and set us down on the physical plane. They make us resemble our parents and other forbears in the ongoing stream of heredity. They bring this about through the fact that they bear within themselves certain preconditions of similarity to our ancestors. And much else is also responsible for the incorporation of our physical bodies into the physical world. We concerned ourselves yesterday to some extent with an awareness of how human beings who gradually advance to what is known as clairvoyant perception free themselves from their dependence upon their physical bodies as tools for relating to the world.
The next step is then that the etheric rather than the physical body serves as the direct means of interrelationship with the world; imaginative perception takes the place of the mental images and other knowledge acquired with the use of our physical bodies, i.e., with the sense organs and the brain. I tried yesterday to describe in a more pictorial way how changed the soul feels when it progresses from using the physical body to making use of the etheric body.
It is true, of course, that we are always making use of our etheric bodies, except when we are sleeping, but we use them in the sense that they carry on their activity within our physical bodies, so that both the physical and etheric bodies are made use of during our life on the physical plane. But we come to know what the particular characteristics of the etheric body are when it is lifted out of its connection with the physical body and put to use as our sole perceptive instrument. We know that this condition comes about naturally immediately after death, when we have laid the physical body aside. Then, for a short time, we make use of the etheric body, until that too is laid aside.
We have therefore to distinguish the first condition after death, in which we dissolve our bond with the physical body, from the second condition that soon follows it, and brings about the dissolution of our bond with the etheric body.
I have been saying that the physical body binds us to everything that comes to us on the physical plane. What, then, does the etheric body bind us to? It binds us to everything that relates us to the cosmos, to the extraterrestrial, to everything that lives in us that cannot be ascribed directly to any connection with the physical realm. If, for example, a person is born with a physically defective ear, he won't be able to become a musician. But physical defects are due to physical heredity. This is a radical case that illustrates our dependence upon the ongoing heredity process. But we must turn our attention from the capacities to which our physical bodies predispose us to those occasioned by the etheric. These show up more distinctly in particular predispositions of the soul. Only a poor observer can miss the fact of the great differences of soul manifested by individuals. Dull-witted materialists are sometimes little interested in subtle differences of soul; they want to investigate the external form element alone. But alert observers of life are perfectly aware that nobody resembles any other person as far as his individuality is concerned.
People who have entertained theosophical concepts for awhile are satisfied to explain these individual differences by saying that everyone has lived through repeated earth lives and demonstrates in his individual characteristics what he has brought with him from the past. This is right, of course, but it does not suffice for true understanding. Just imagine, for example, a person being born with a sensitive musical ear, but with no opportunity to get a musical education. In such a case his musical ear would go undeveloped. One cannot, of course, be musically educated if one lacks a musical ear, but external opportunity, a person's milieu, must also permit it. There are people who are always satisfied to fall back on the same one-sided explanation of facts, saying that our higher ego, our higher self, takes care of everything. The higher self is actually the world! This may be true, but it is by no means enough to explain everything in the universe. It is true that karma is the cause of our individual predispositions, that our individual differences come from the way we develop in the course of our incarnations. But it is not enough to know that we pass through various earth lives and develop ourselves as individuals; we need to know what enables us to make actual use in life of the capacities developed by us as individuals.
Let us turn our attention to the life between death and a new birth. You are familiar with the content of the published lecture cycle entitled Life between Death and Rebirth, and can gather from it that the various factors preparing us for rebirth, for a new incarnation in a physical body, must be brought together during that life. 1Rudolf Steiner, Life between Death and Rebirth, (Hudson, N.Y.: Anthroposophic Press, 1987). But it has to be possible in the spiritual world for human beings to find there what they need in order to develop their individual capacities. We can conceive of having had an incarnation during which we laid the foundation for certain developments in the following earth life, but finding no possibility between death and rebirth of bringing to development the potentialities implanted in us for the following incarnation. A plant seed may be full of potential, but unless it is planted in favorable soil it is impossible for its potential to develop. Similarly, we may be ever so full of promise as individuals, but if we are unable to find in the spiritual world factors that nourish us as suitable soil does a plant seed, then the life-conditions needed for the unfolding of the capacities we have developed for a future incarnation cannot be provided.
This can make us aware that the world contains deep hidden secrets that can be discovered if we train the light of spiritual science on the actual facts. A few catchy theories or sayings, such as that we have various incarnations and so on, each as our individuality dictates, from one to the next, are not enough; they do not reach down to what we experience as the riddles of life. The need, as I have reiterated these last few days, is always to find the right perspective. We will encounter much in life that will strike us as profound riddles that need some degree of solution if we are not to feel ourselves helpless strugglers who, though we may see the riddles life presents, cannot cope with them.
There is a riddle I want to bring up here because it deals with the spiritual investigator's connection with the question of what conditions contribute to the development of individuality. I'll characterize it later on. I refer to the riddles we encounter in life with respect to the varying ages at which people die. Let's say one person lives to a great old age, while someone else dies very young. People die, of course, at all the various ages. We can state this thoughtlessly; there is particularly little inclination to be sensitive to a riddle so frequently encountered. But the fact is that the most commonplace matters pose the greatest riddles.
A contemplation of the relationship of the etheric body to the world as a whole brings us closer to this riddle. Everyone knows as a fact of experience that our physical bodies age; we grow older and older physically. And everyone understands what is involved in aging. But where our etheric bodies are concerned the opposite is true: we grow younger, ever younger. When we are very old, our physical bodies are old, but our etheric bodies have grown young. Some of you have already heard of this in my lectures, but I want to discuss it today in a different context. We have to develop our etheric bodies during an incarnation in such a way that when we have come to its close, our astral bodies will be so embedded in these etheric bodies that they feel themselves prepared for their appropriate entrance into the next life. It is really true that when an individual is old and gray and wrinkled, his etheric body burgeons with fresh life, for his astral body must accustom itself at this point to live in an etheric body already teeming with germinal potential. The way the astral body is to permeate and work in the physical body of a child in the following incarnation must already find some degree of expression in its connection with the etheric body grown young.
It is remarkable how the genius of language can reveal some secret or other. As I've mentioned on other occasions, you will find a beautiful passage in Goethe's Faust where the term “growing young” is used in place of “being born,” “growing young” rather than “growing old.” In other words, we start to grow young when we are born.
This is based, of course, on the conception of the soul pre-existing birth. But the forces it will need to enable it to work through the body into which the child is born must have been acquired while the etheric body is growing young in the aging physical body of the previous earth life.
Materialists find special corroboration of their materialistic theories in the fact that even geniuses — or at least those who are regarded as such — sometimes become senile in their old age, and Kant is cited as a particularly relished case. But people who subscribe to this way of thinking do not grasp the fact that the soul can manifest here on the physical plane only through the agency of the physical organs. Kant's brain became unable to serve as the tool of the soul forces he had evolved, and this is why he appeared feebleminded in old age, even though the soul that was preparing to organize the physical body of his next incarnation was actually already living in him. But in the previous earth life this soul was unable to make a suitable instrument of the physical body it inhabited.
If you apply what I have just been saying, you will see that it makes a tremendous, an enormous difference whether an individual dies in extreme old age or as a youngster, perhaps even in childhood. For the etheric body of someone who dies in youth has not yet grown young. If we are speaking of physical human beings we can say that they are growing old, but in speaking of the etheric body we would have to say that it “grows young.” That would be the proper expression for it. The etheric body grows young but it has not yet grown entirely young in those who die at an early age. I once tried to suggest this by saying that when a person dies in childhood or in youth his etheric body has not actually been used up. This etheric body would have lasted him a lifetime; he could have reached sixty years or more with it if he hadn't died young. But the force inherent in such an etheric body remains in existence, just as forces in the physical world do; they are not lost. However, we need to make a closer study of the special, unique attributes of this etheric body.
When a person can live to what is considered a normal old age — say seventy or eighty — his etheric body has grown very young. The whole fruit of his life experience lodges in this young etheric body, is imprinted on and expressed in it, and the astral body then takes possession of it. That happens in the following way. Let us picture the physical body abandoned by the etheric body. So long as the etheric body remains in the physical body, it cannot develop the forces it has acquired in life because it is imprisoned in the physical body. Picture how, in our previous earth life, we acquired this or that capacity. This is to say, we acquired it with the physical body of that incarnation. What we have added to it in the present incarnation has not yet had time to develop organs for its use; we must first create these in our current incarnation for the life to follow. But all this is lodged in the etheric body, which is more elastic, more fluid than the physical. No use can be made of it, however, as long as the etheric body remains bound to the physical body. But when the physical body has fallen away, the etheric body is freed. And now this etheric body brings forth all the fruits of the life we have lived through up to our death. That is also the reason why it presents the whole life-panorama that spreads out before us for a few days, the tableau of finished earth life, so that we may learn and acquire from this panorama everything that can be extracted from our past experiences. And that takes place during the few days during which we have the tableau before us.
Every morning, on awakening, when our astral body enters our physical and etheric bodies, it has to adapt itself to what has evolved out of the physical and etheric bodies of the past incarnation, and there it encounters what we have made of ourselves. The astral body never enters the etheric body in a way that allows it to make use of what the etheric body has developed in the present incarnation. But after death it does so. It is related to the etheric body in a way that lets it feel and perceive and sense the fruits gathered from the life just ended. And when, a few days later, the astral body separates from the etheric, the entire product of that life is contained in the astral body as the result of the astral body's having drawn it out of the etheric body during the days it has spent there. The astral body needs to spend only those few days in the liberated etheric body to live through everything that an incarnation has brought forth. But it takes a long time so to shape what it has thus experienced that a new earth life can be fashioned from it.
It requires a great deal, as you see, to fashion a new life. And if it were left to human wisdom to achieve this fashioning all by itself, the result would certainly be most inadequate. Try to picture yourselves having to shape your entire physical instrument with the content of your consciousness. You would first have to have a thorough understanding of it. But every glance into external science makes it clear how little insight into our physical make-up we possess. But between death and rebirth we possess it sufficiently to be able to fashion our physical body, right down into its most delicate details, in a way that qualifies it to make use of the capacities evolved in the previous incarnation.
If someone were to ask you how a convolution of the brain could be arranged to conform with the capacities acquired in the previous incarnation and you had to decide whether it should be turned or twisted thus or so, you wouldn't be able to say, if you were examined on the subject, that twisting in some particular direction would correspond to a person's having been an orator in his past incarnation, and that that particular twist would produce the right working out in this life of the acquired capacity. How could you conceivably answer out of the consciousness you possess on the physical plane? But we have to answer that question in the life between death and rebirth, for we must endow the new etheric body with the requisite capacity delicately to chisel out our organs. A single word suffices to describe what is needed, but I wanted to evoke a sense of what this word encompasses: wisdom is required, a wisdom human beings really need to have.
Even though Kant grew feebleminded in old age, his soul — which is to say, his astral body as it lived in his newly constituted etheric body — his soul was wise, for it was already in possession of wisdom. But his ego was unable to raise it to a conscious level with the brain. His soul contained the wisdom that was to emerge between death and rebirth and make its contribution to Kant's future incarnation. Kant lived into old age. The older a person grows, physically speaking, the more pronounced is this moment of wisdom.
But in the case of those who die young the situation is different, for the etheric body has not grown young, and there is consequently less earth-acquired wisdom stored up in it. It is earth-acquired wisdom that is involved here. Something else takes its place. Those who die early have old etheric bodies that have not had time to grow young, and these are all the more teeming with will. Direct will-force in all its immediacy, the love element, creative love-force, permeates them. That is the difference between the etheric bodies of the old and young. The former bear more the character of wisdom, the latter of will. The etheric body of a person who dies young streams out love, warm love, a warm etheric love-element, while that of an older person streams out an aura filled with light and wisdom.
We can answer the question that interests us here by asking spiritual science what would happen if, for some reason, everyone were to grow very old, living on to eighty or ninety, if not a single person died young. What would the result be?
In that case, all the etheric bodies deserted by their souls would be imbued with loving wisdom. People living on the earth in the continuity of history would find it possible to learn a great deal during their physical earth lives, for their physical bodies would be wisely fashioned. They would be born somewhat undifferentiated, each similar to all the rest, but they could learn a great deal on the physical plane. They would be delicately and wisely built, and could learn a great deal, since such learning would be connected with an extremely mobile constitution. Due to their extraordinarily sensitive, mechanistically-wisely constituted physical organisms, these people would be in a state of labile balance that could easily shift. A person would learn a great deal, but be terribly nervous, as the current “nervous” age would express it. It would be a humanity tending to fidget and to have a precarious balance, very gifted for learning on the physical plane, but nevertheless very restless and fidgety. We had better say fidgety rather than nervous; why not put it in a way that feels right? In earlier times, even a couple of centuries ago, throughout Europe a person who had strong nerves and could stand a lot was referred to as “nervy” or “nervous.” But nowadays the tone is not set by the same people, so the meaning of the word got turned into the exact opposite.
Now the soul-differentiations we bring with us into an incarnation from the spiritual world would not exist in human development if everybody grew old, if no one were to die young. There would be no talents, no being born with special gifts. People would come into the world more or less like each other, more or less undifferentiated. They would differ from one another and learn different things only as a result of experiencing different conditions on the physical plane, and would be rather similarly adaptable to whatever circumstances they encountered. Special individual needs would be taken care of by karma through the agency of heredity. Beyond this, what we know as predispositions to special soul-qualities would be lacking. People would simply not possess inner differences.
But everything in the world has to be founded on balance, as I've often said, and in these matters too there can be no one-sidedness. Human life must accordingly be built, on the one hand, on the possibility of pouring into the physical body what an individual has stored up as wisdom in the etheric body's growing younger for use in a future incarnation. On the other hand, the will impulses of those who die young are needed. I have shown at hand of many examples how children who die very young have not expended their etheric bodies. Right here at the Goetheanum we ourselves live in the aura of an etheric body out of which those forces that provide artistic stimulus are derived. I explained how a child belonging to the Goetheanum community left his etheric body at his death, and that this etheric body has created an aura that is incorporated into our building. Those able to perceive the nature of the impulses that come from this etheric body find support in them for the artistic impulses to be lived out here.
But this is in general the situation with the etheric bodies of those who die young. They go back; they haven't as yet grown so young as entirely to have worn down the will element; instead, will and creative love-forces accompany them into the spiritual world. And now a continuous interchange has to take place between those etheric bodies that have grown wholly young and those less young. Continuous mutual support is exchanged in the spiritual world between what ascends from the earth in the etheric bodies of the very aged and the etheric bodies of young people, or, indeed, of those in the in-between years. When very young children die, those referred to in Faust as “the midnight-born,” their etheric bodies are very old, quite hoary in fact, but they are endowed with strong will- forces. Etheric bodies of this kind are able to work powerfully on the long-lived etheric bodies of those who grow physically old.
Just think what a brilliant idea it was that made Goethe have the centenarian Faust go to heaven surrounded by the etheric bodies of very young boys, the “midnight-born,” hinting thereby that an exchange of the kind described has to take place!
This interchange is always going on. We can therefore say that there exist in the spiritual world the etheric bodies of human beings who have grown physically old, and various things are taking place in them (see drawing, mauve); then, in red, the etheric bodies of deceased young people, with various things taking place in them as well; and an interchange between them, a process of mutual exchange. And what we encounter in the life between death and rebirth is the result of the situations that develop in this exchange between the etheric bodies of those who died young and those who died old. This interchange is essential; without it, the evolution of humanity on earth could not proceed properly.
The beings who direct this interchange are to be found in the realm of the angel hierarchy, so that we really have to recognize such an interchange between the two kinds of etheric bodies in the spiritual world in which we are immersed. The two kinds of activity coalesce, like two merging rivers. But they are then given proper direction and regulation by angelic beings; that is one of the tasks with which angels are charged. When, therefore, persons are able to come into the world with special talents, this is due not only to the possibility that between death and rebirth wisdom of a materialistic nature that is a fruit of the earth has been imprinted into physical bodies, but that something not as yet fully developed on earth, the product of the etheric bodies of those who died young, has brought about effects present as forces that can be interwoven in the process of fashioning human talents.
You see how spiritual science can bring about a living feeling for things when we really immerse ourselves in its secrets. We learn from spiritual science to lift ourselves in spirit to a contemplation of the mystery of death in an older person. For then we tell ourselves that people grow old in order that human evolution may go forward in the right way for as long as physical bodies are needed as vehicles. We have a premonition, whenever an older person dies, of the fruits that human evolution on earth will bear as a result. And when we give ourselves up to a contemplation of what the future holds, we realize that there has to be a continuous development of talents in mankind's progressive evolution. This person must be gifted in this direction, another in that, with capabilities ranging all the way to the genius level. That could not be the case if nobody were fated to die young. And as we look up to people of special genius, we can attribute their gifts to the fact that some individuals have to die young. To contemplate the mystery of death in the case of young human beings is to realize that early death too is part of the wise design, for it gives rise to seed-forces of soul-endowment needed by the human race for its further progress.
If we can lift ourselves above a personal reaction to death to a contemplation of what is needed by mankind as a whole, we encounter the wisdom involved in the deaths of both young and old. It is important to realize that a truly genuine and earnest study of spiritual science does not remain mere theory, but that a proper grasp of theories leads to attitudes and feelings that enable us to achieve greater harmony in our lives than we could achieve if we didn't have it. We need spiritual science to develop the deeper insight that can lead to a perception of the consonance that lies behind life's otherwise unbearable dissonances.
We learn, too, to understand the sacrifices that we have to make in life and the things that pain us, if we know that the entire universe can be rightly maintained only by developments that cannot help but cause us sorrow. We simply have to make the effort to sense that the many hundreds of geniuses: Homer, Shakespeare, Goethe, Michelangelo, Raphael, and so on, are essential to mankind's progressive evolution, and would not have existed as such had the ground not been prepared by people dying young. This has nothing to do with the individual. Those who die young and thus sacrifice their etheric bodies in their youth provide the entire cosmos with a fruitful soil for the growth and maturing of human soul-capacities.
We become united with the universe when, instead of taking an abstract approach to spiritual science, it becomes for us a seeking out of impulses that flow into us as soul-warmth, reconciling us with the world, moving us to our depths as they show us that, though we human beings have to undergo painful experiences, we suffer them for the sake of harmony in the entire universe.
It is not always easy to withdraw our attention from individual life to focus on the life of the whole world. But the fact that achieving this goal is difficult is also the reason why it strengthens us. And as we develop a feeling for community from our suffering, that sense of the totality of the cosmic order becomes ever more intense and lays ever more profound hold on our innermost souls. And we prepare ourselves in doing this to become participants in the universal order of a kind the gods make use of.