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The Karma of Vocation
GA 172

Lecture V

13 November 1916, Dornach

From these reflections on the segment of human life that is formed by, or associated with, a vocation, you will have seen that it is difficult to explain these things because they bring so much into consideration. We must bear in mind that everything that is brought into a life through the laws of destiny, of karma, depends on many factors, and the very multiplicity of life rests upon just this truth.

A special comment is in order here if, in the word vocation, we subsume individual human elements from a life's destiny. In other words, what is called the vocation of an individual must not be confused with what we designate, in the broadest sense, as his official position. It is obvious that all sorts of confusion would result if we directed our attention to what someone represents in his or her official position and subject this to the point of view of vocational life represented here. The very fact that people frequently have to follow their vocation within an official position causes the most complex external factors to have a bearing on their lives, and other karmic threads may, after a fashion, also weave into their vocational karmas.

To be sure, we are living today in a period that is being slowly transformed, but the things we must mention here relative to vocational karma are by no means the sole determinants in placing a person in this or that position in life. We know that today vocational karma is crossed in many ways by the karma of entire ranks and classes of human beings. The ambition, vanity, and prejudice of an individual, as well as the people around him, have a bearing on the many factors that influence the way he or she occupies a position in life within a group. All of them work into vocational karma from without and render it possible for ahrimanic influences to mingle continually in human activity. Someone in a certain position in life, who, through all sorts of means that are well-known and need not be mentioned, has become, let us say, a minister or councilor of state, does not necessarily have the mission (vocation) to occupy this post. Such a person may hold a high position, yet his or her mission may be that of a clerk, but we need not suppose that for this reason the position cannot be occupied. It is the peculiarity of our time that the materialistic interpretation of the basic assumptions, justifiable as they may be in themselves, has brought forward such a theory of life as that of the “selection of the fittest.” Even Oskar Hertwig, the student of Haeckel70 Oskar Hertwig (1849–1922) was an anatomist who served as the director of the Anatomical-Biological Institute in Berlin from 1888 through 1921. His book Das Werden der Organismen. Eine Widerlegung von Darwins Zufallstheorie [The Development of Organisms. A Refutation of Darwin's Theory of Chance] appeared in 1916. has criticized such an interpretation by pointing out that this age of ours which has produced such a doctrine clearly selects the least fit for the most important positions, and this to an extent that is unparalleled when compared to the total scope of life in other ages. We are not simply deprecating our own times in a pessimistic way and referring to the good old times that are past, but we stand here in the presence of an actual fact. The very people who take pride now in the theory of the selection of the fittest are the ones who in reality yield to the tendency of choosing the least qualified people for the seemingly most important places in life.

This is a bitter truth today. Yet, it would be recognized if the present age were not entirely under the influence of the most far-reaching faith in authority, stupor of opportunism, and dominated by what is called public opinion, which a philosopher of the nineteenth century termed “private foolishness.” To repeat, people would see what is of real importance here if it were not for the immense influence of present public opinion that flows from such muddy sources. We must, therefore, understand that our age has to be educated to a stronger grasp of life through learning to see that we are immersed in one-sidedness, in the selection of the worst. This must come to pass in spite of so-called public opinion and its hero worship of the least qualified people.

Official positions are often filled by Ahriman-Mephistopheles and, as the Faust unfolds, you can see how Mephistopheles attends to his official responsibilities. Faust was able to free himself from Mephistopheles only at the end of his life. He comes now to the King's palace and produces paper money—an invention of extraordinary importance for the last century. But it is Mephistopheles who really invents it. Faust is then guided into the ancient world by Homunculus, who had come into existence through the help of Mephistopheles. He even becomes a commander-in-chief and conducts wars, but in the presentation used by Goethe in this act, we can see that, in reality, Mephistopheles carries on these wars. In the end we see how Faust gradually frees himself from Mephistopheles. Even though Faust, after he has abandoned the professorship he previously held, simply roams about the world without having definite official position; we must say that Mephistopheles stands beside him in the way in which the Mephistophelian force plays into the life of humanity. This is one thing we must pay attention to.

A second fact is equally important. It is extremely difficult to properly investigate what really works in man's nature in the course of karmic evolution. Indeed, we may say that in this area, too, scientific development has arrived at a point where it must be replaced by spiritual scientific observation. It is precisely in dealing with the life of the soul that scientists make the most terrible blunders. Indeed, we observe that there is a perverted scientific school of thought that ventures to confront soul life by trying to observe it in a scientific way, admitting that it is not to be found in consciousness but that much of it rises up into consciousness from the unconscious or subconscious that lies below the threshold. In previous discussions we have presented concrete examples of soul life that really lie in the subconscious and rise up into consciousness like the clouds of smoke that are produced when bits of paper are burned in the region of a solfatara.71 Solfatara is the vulcanic sulfurgas well near Pozzuoli. To be sure, a great deal lies below in the depths of consciousness.

We may say, then, that for a proper understanding of things some psychologists already presume it to be necessary to posit the presence or absence of an obscure, unconscious capacity in the soul. Since, however, they are not yet willing to adjust to a more comprehensive spiritual scientific conception of the world, they can produce only a caricature. A person holding the point of view of scientific psychology looks upon a human life as it has developed. To be sure, it is no longer supposed that what the soul feels and wills, what causes it happiness or unhappiness, joy or pain, depends only on what it has retained in consciousness. The effort is made now to quiz the soul to draw out of it what it has passed through in joy, sorrow, disillusionment in life and other things that have been forgotten. What has been forgotten, however, has not disappeared, so it is said, but has burrowed into the subconscious.

Especially the unsatisfied and subsequently suppressed appetites of an earlier time are said to agitate in the subconscious. Let us take the specific case of a woman in her thirtieth year. When she was sixteen, she fell in love, developing a genuinely erotic passion, which, so this scientific school says, would have led her life astray if she had surrendered to it and if it had been fulfilled. Under the influence of her education and the advice of her elders, however, she suppressed it—swallowed it, to use a trivial expression—down into her soul. She lives on and fourteen years pass. She is perhaps now married in keeping with her position in life. So far as her daily thinking and feeling are concerned, the matter is long forgotten; but what is forgotten has not disappeared. The content of the soul is not exhausted in what it knows, this school of thought would claim, and in the depths of her soul this incident is still present. But in spite of being outwardly happy, this lady suffers from an indefinable tendency toward pessimism, a partial weariness of life, from nervousness or neurasthenia, or something of the kind, and these symptoms are then diagnosed as an expression of her suppressed anxiety about the incident earlier in her life. The effort is then made to introduce this kind of psychology into the science of healing, to cure such souls through questioning. The patients are told that such experiences still reside in the deepest regions of the psyche, apparently forgotten by the upper level of consciousness, and that they must be drawn to the surface. If, under the influence of a skillful interrogator who, according to the views in vogue, must be a psychologist, they are thus brought to the surface, and if the person comes to understand the matter, then things will be better. Actual “cures” are frequently achieved by these means, although in most cases patients only seem to be cured. To what extent they are apparent cures, however, we can explain on some other occasion. This, then, is one example of how scientists try to penetrate the depths of the soul's life.

Another example has to do with a man thirty-five or forty, who is suffering from a certain weariness of life, from a certain vacillation in life. Neither he nor those about him know why, least of all he himself. Someone who deals with such a “science of the soul,” as we have explained, then burrows into the forgotten subterranean soul life of this man and brings to light the fact that the plan he had for his life when he was about sixteen was wrecked. He then had to turn to a different plan, one that was unrelated to the other. Certainly he seems to have been content in what he felt, thought, and willed from one day to another, but this is not the entire life of the soul; the shattered plan of life still continued to be a living force in the deepest crevices of the soul.

In this case, too, the “experts” believe the man can be cured when, through questioning, this shattered plan of life is discovered and the person can come to an understanding of it through his questioner. It is also supposed that there is much in the depth of the soul that the consciousness knows nothing of. In short, the conclusion has been reached that consciousness represents only a small part of what comprises the life of the soul. But what people are now trying to find on the bottom of the soul's life is really some sort of soulless sediment. A theologian recently called it somewhat coarsely—“the bestial slime at the bottom of the soul.” That is to say, disillusionments, suppressed appetites, ruined life plans, “the bestial slime at the bottom of the soul,” all come from the lower depths of the soul life. This refers to everything that is rooted in the life of the flesh, the blood, the animalistic; it does not come from the soul's depths in a conscious way because consciousness would, and actually does, resist all this.

There is certainly some truth in this theory of the “bestial slime at the bottom of the soul.” How often in life do we hear our consciousness say: “I really want only one thing; I would like to experience this or that, which is why I turn to this or that person.” But the slime at the bottom begins to work, and it may be only bestial appetites that are at play, disguised by what the consciousness says. It is further maintained by this “scientific” school that these unconscious regions also harbor everything that is derived from the connection of the individual with race, nation and all sorts of other historical residues that play their roles unconsciously in the soul, while the consciousness itself is behaving quite differently. In view of all that is brewing in the world today, one couldn't even say that these things cannot be confirmed by examples from all over the world. How could one deny that many people today speak of lofty ideals regarding the rights and freedom of a people while all that is really active in their souls is what burrows in the bottom slime, deriving from the connections psychoanalysis seeks to analyze.

Then the theological psychoanalysts—and I do not know how they and the scientific psychoanalysts reason with each other—also include the demonic as part of the subconscious life of the soul—in other words, that which emerges from still greater depths, the utterly irrational, as it is said. The theological psychoanalysts take great satisfaction especially in the thought that unknown demons work in the subconscious soul in order, for example, to change people into gnostics or theosophists. They think that when the soul has been psychoanalyzed, when we have penetrated its deepest regions where the “primeval slime” lies, a demonic teaching such as that of gnosis can be discovered there, or a demonic teaching such as that of psychoanalysis—excuse me, not psychoanalysis, which according to the view of these men and women is not to be found there, but theosophy and other things also mentioned in this connection. Well, I really did not want to enter into a criticism of psychoanalysis, but my purpose in explaining all this is to indicate that something in these psychonanalytical endeavors forces contemporary research into contact with what lies, works and weaves below the conscious part of the soul. Nonetheless, the most perverted findings must result from these endeavors because of the preconceptions of scientists and their unwillingness to take account of spiritual scientific investigations in this field. What they are able to discover in the life of the soul can only be analyzed in the right way with the knowledge that human life proceeds through repeated lives on earth. Yet the psychoanalysts attempt to explain what exists at the bottom of the soul on the basis of a single life on earth, and it is not surprising that the picture they paint is so highly distorted.

One who finds, for example, ruined life plans at the bottom of the soul must first investigate the significance of such a ruin in the total human life that passes through repeated lives on earth. He or she would then perhaps discover that certain aspects of such a total human life are also active in the subconscious and, as a matter of destiny, have actually hindered that particular life plan from coming to fruition. Such an individual would then observe that this ruined life plan in the depths of the soul is destined, not simply to cause illness in this incarnation, but also to be carried through the portal of death as a force in the life between death and a new birth, playing its true role only in the next life on earth. It may, indeed, be a necessity that such a ruined life plan should at first be preserved in the depths of the soul where it may be strengthened and thereby enabled to gain its true form between death and a new birth so that it may take on the shape predestined for it in the next earthly life; this it could not have done in this present earthly life because of other characteristics in the soul's life.

So the “bestial slime at the bottom of the soul”—as I have said, the expression is disagreeable—is there, to be sure; but bear in mind what I have said regarding the relationship between the head and the rest of man's organism. His body is connected with his earthly life—indeed, with his present incarnation in many respects—whereas his head is the result of earlier stages of the evolution of the earth and is connected especially with his preceding incarnations. When you take this into consideration, you will understand that from the rest of the organism, in accord with the role that it plays in the entire karmic connection, much works upward that must possess a different stage of maturity from what comes from the head and nervous system. But one who merely analyzes the slime at the bottom in the psychoanalytic way is utterly misled. He is like a person who wishes to know what kind of grain will grow in a particular soil before grain has been grown there. In analyzing the soil he finds a certain manure with which it has been fertilized. So he says, “Now I know the manure from which the next crop of grain will grow.” The grain does not by any means grow from the manure, in spite of the fact that it must be there! The essential thing is what is planted in this mud at the bottom. This is often predestined to exert its influence through the portal of death into the next development on earth. What is needed is not to investigate the bestial bottom slime, but what is planted in this muddy substance as the seed of the soul.

So-called psychoanalysis makes possible investigations in the very region where present preconceptions are working in a disastrous fashion; we are dealing here with a field from which present thinking tends strongly to take its directions, since it is not content with what conscious experiences give to the soul. The general area in which research ought to be done is no longer in dispute, but because people who cannot understand spiritual science have no true guidelines for their investigations, they burrow aimlessly in the fields assigned them through their official connections or their own agitation. They do this in the most unskillful manner, placing everything in a false position because they do not know better. Their research would yield the proper results only if they were able to follow the true karmic threads, as I have indicated at least suggestively through reference to one thing and another. This psychoanalysis is terribly unsound, especially when it stirs up the region of the elemental. Yet it is of great importance to investigate fine and intimate formations of the threads reaching into the future destiny of a human being. What takes place in a person's conscious life from waking until sleeping reveals little of those forces that continue to work as a karmic stream through various incarnations. What we experience consciously during our waking life belongs largely to the present incarnation. It is well that it is so because we should be industrious in our present incarnation. But much that will be carried through the portal of death as a germ formed from the experiences of our present incarnation—the incidents through which we have passed, the proficiencies achieved—all this plays a significant role in our life from the moment of falling asleep to that of waking, and this often influences our dreams. We must learn, however, to judge the formation of dreams in the right way. When people say that they are reminiscences, this is often true, but they do not act in the stream of our karma in a linear fashion. In fact, they often act in such a way that their significance is the exact opposite of what they are represented to be. I will give you an example from literature in order to bring out clearly what I wish to say.

The aestheticist Theodor Vischer72 Friedrich Theodor Vischer (1807–87) spelled his last name with a V, not an F, and Steiner stresses that fact in his lecture. included in his novel Auch Einer a clever little story that I will introduce here because I am speaking of vocational life in a more comprehensive way, that is, including everything that is connected with one's occupation. So I will give an illustration of this. In Vischer's novel, there is a conversation between a father and his son. They are walking together and, after the father has questioned his son about all sorts of things, the boy says, “Just think, the teacher told us that we should always ask what a person's occupation is because to have a proper occupation is important. In this way it is possible to learn whether or not the person is respectable and whether he has a good soul life.” “I see,” says the father. “Yes, indeed, and after the teacher told us this I had a dream in which I was walking by the lake over there and in my dream I asked the lake what sort of occupation it had, and the lake answered, ‘I have the occupation of being wet.’ ” “Is that so?” says the father.

This is a most clever anecdote and one that reveals that the person who thought it out had much knowledge of life. The father said, “Is that so?” because he naturally did not wish to confuse his son and tell him what a stupid thing the teacher had said. But that father no doubt had his thoughts on the subject. He really should have enlightened his son in a more intelligent way than the teacher had done, and should have said to him, “We should not form our judgments so superficially. It might well be that a person would be wrong as to what a respectable occupation is and might falsely consider a man to be disreputable; he might also be disadvantaged in some way.” In short, the father would have had to correct his son, but in this particular case it was not necessary. The boy was still young, and his dream could still work in a favorable manner on him. This dream worked in his subconscious, but in such a way as to erase the stupidity of the teacher from his soul. Thus, the dream took on a form in the boy's subconscious, which is cleverer than the superficial consciousness, in such a way that a breath of ridicule was spread over the stupidity of the teacher. The lake said its occupation, its vocation, was to be wet. This is something that will work in a wholesome way in expelling the harmful influences of such teaching. Here the dream is a reminiscence that comes the very next night, but it also serves as a corrective in life. In fact, the astral body often works in this way, and we might find, together with the residue remaining in the soul from living experiences, particularly from wrongful instruction, that a corrective is also present in the subconscious forces of the soul. This often produces its influence even in the same incarnation in young people. Above all, however, its influence is carried through the portal of death and continues further. This constitutes a means of self-correction in man, and we must pay attention to this fact.

In mentioning these things I simply wanted to indicate how much there is in a human soul and how this forces its way from one incarnation into the next. We have to do with a whole complex of forces that project from one incarnation into another. Now we must consider what relationship exists between this complex of forces and the human being insofar as his life flows along between birth and death. Here he or she is really an instrument with four strings—physical, etheric, astral bodies, and ego—on which this bow of karmic forces plays its tune. The individual life comes into being according to the measure in which one or the other—the etheric body, the astral body, or the etheric together with the ego—is swept by the bow of karma, if you allow this comparison with a violin. The tones of these four strings of life may interplay in many ways, making it difficult to speak of and decipher, not in mere empty abstractions but in lithic detail, the individual life-melodies of human beings. Thus, it is possible to decipher them only when one is able to see how the bow of karma plays upon the four strings of a human being. However, general points of view come into consideration here, and to these we must turn our attention.

If we observe a human being in those years when, as explained in my brochure Education of the Child in the Light of Anthroposophy, the physical body and especially the etheric body are primarily coming into development, if we observe the development of children from approximately the seventh to the fourteenth years, we shall note that just at this time certain characteristics appear in them that are especially typical of this period. Certain things consolidate themselves in a way, although many things overlap one another so that much that appears during the first seven years can be more thoroughly and profoundly observed only between the seventh and the fourteenth. It will be found that something appears in a more definite way in the developing child that we may call, in a sense, the inner peculiarities that are consolidated through the character and demeanor of the corporeality. This is so, however, only insofar as they come to expression in the posture and gestures of the physical being, and in the entire bearing of his life. I refer to what is there taking solid form; not all, to be sure, but a great part of what causes a human being to be stocky and short, or to have a taller body that causes him or her to walk in a particular way such as with a firm step or a dancing gait, to mention radical contrasts. As I have said, not all, but a great part of what thus appears in the developing child is derived from karma and is the effect of the vocation of his preceding incarnation. Mistakes are often made when no attention is paid to what I have just said; that is, when, to appear clever, an effort is made to determine what a child's vocation will be from his manner and bearing. He would thus, however, mistakenly be given a vocation similar to that of his previous incarnation, and this would be detrimental to the child.

When this period of a child's life ends, or even before that time because, as I have said, things overlap one another, then the astral body manifests itself in a special way by working back on what had been developed previously. If one realizes this and has derived it from spiritual science, it can then be observed also on the physical plane. In accordance with other karmic forces, the astral body works back in such a way that it transforms what had resulted from the purely vocational karma during the seventh to the fourteenth years. In other words, two antagonistic forces struggle with each other in the child. One group of forces gives him form; these come more from the etheric body. The other group, coming more from the astral body, works against these and in part paralyzes them, so that he is compelled to transform what has been forced upon him by the vocational karma of his previous incarnation. In other words, we may say that the etheric body works in a formative way; that is, what is manifested as the bearing of the physical body, as one's carriage, is derived from the etheric body. The astral body works in a transforming way. Through the interplay of these two forces, which are really in bitter conflict with each other, much comes to expression that has to do with the working of vocational karma.

This now works together with other karmic currents, however, since we must also consider the physical body. With it, what comes primarily into consideration during the first period of life is how the human being has placed himself in the world by means of his karma. Even the kind of physical body we have depends upon this since, by reason of our karma, we place ourselves in a certain family in a specific nation. Thus, we receive a definitely formed body, but this is not all. Just think how much depends on the course of our life and on the situation into which we have entered by placing ourselves in a certain family. By that fact alone the basis is given for much in our life. As a matter of fact, during the first seven years in which the physical body is especially developing, forces are active in it—or we had better say around it—that are derived not from our vocation and all that was related to it in our previous incarnation, but from the way in which we have lived with others in previous incarnations. By this I mean how we stood in this or that relationship with this or that person during a preceding incarnation, not in any particular part of our life—this belongs to another field—but throughout our entire lifetime. Our souls work on this because they are profoundly affected by the relationships we had with human beings, and we bear with us what evolves from this process through the portal of death. Because of these forces, we bring it about that we place ourselves again in a certain particular family and situation in life. So we may say that what actually places our physical body here, in a sense, and works through it, also determines our situation in life. This continues to work further, of course, through the following lives, and meets its counterbalancing force through the ego. The ego works in a dissolving way upon life situations, but it also works in conflict with what is already determined in them. We may, therefore, say: Physical body, creative of the life situation; ego, transformative of the life situation. Through the united action of these two in this struggle, another current of karma takes hold of life since two forces are omnipresent in an individual: those that tend to keep him in a particular situation, and those that tend to disengage him from it.

That is to say, 1 and 4 work in a primary way upon one another, as do 2 and 3; but all four also work in the most manifold ways upon each other. The way we enter into relationships with new human beings during our life according to our karma depends upon the connection of 1 and 4 with each other. But this is to be traced back, in turn, to our relationships in earlier lives. The way we find our relationships in our daily work, our vocation, is connected with 2 and 3 and their reciprocal action upon each other.

I ask that you reflect upon all this for the present. We shall continue this study.