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The Rudolf Steiner Archive

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Earthly Knowledge and Heavenly Wisdom
GA 221

VIII. Moral Impulses and Their Physical Manifestations: Taking Up a Spiritual Path II

17 February 1923, Dornach

Taking the example of Nietzsche, who declared himself a moral philosopher, I explained yesterday that people steeped entirely in outer modern civilization will fail in their attempts to find moral impulses in the nature of the human being because present-day knowledge does not tell us how moral impulses intervene in our physical life. On the one hand, our civilization accepts the laws of natural science, which have already influenced our education to such an extent that we absorb their interpretations of nature from childhood on. On the other hand, there is a moral world view that stands on its own. We regard moral impulses as commandments or as standards of behavior developed through social conventions. We are unable to conceive of a close connection between ethics and our physical life. As I pointed out yesterday, Nietzsche made honesty his prime virtue, and, out of his honesty and sincerity, he finally reached the conclusion that human beings are only physical beings. He felt our physical life was human, all too human, and was also the basis of our morality. Because Nietzsche wanted to be honest regarding the world view of his time, he failed in his moral philosophy. He was unable to see where morality and the physical world meet and work together.

Of course, it is impossible to see this working together without entering the realm rightly called the supersensible world. We have to realize that it is only in human life that moral impulses—moral ideals, if you like—and the physical processes and functions within us come into contact. Today, the big question for us is whether the moral impulses we have remain abstract or can actually intervene in our physical organization.

As I said yesterday, we can be sure that no moral impulse intervenes in the mechanism of a machine. There is no direct connection between the moral world order and machines. Consequently, when the human organism is presented as a kind of machine, as happens more and more often in the modern scientific outlook, the same then applies to us, and moral impulses are only an illusion. At best, we can hope that some being, made known to us through revelation, will intervene in the moral world order, reward the good, and punish the evil people. But we cannot see a connection between moral impulses and physical processes inherent in the order of the world.

Today I want to talk about the realm where this connection between the physical and the moral actually exists. To help us understand what I am going to say, we will begin with animals. Their physical body, their organism of etheric formative forces, and their astral body work together. There is no real I incarnated in animals; rather, they have a group-I that intervenes from the outside. Now we must realize that we have to distinguish two main parts in the animal organization. On the one hand, there is the head. In higher animals, and also in human beings, the head is the primary bearer of the nerve-sense organism. Everything the animals take in from the outer world enters their body mainly through the organs in the head. Of course, what I have emphasized so often is true here too: we should not project the organization of an organism as a whole onto one of its physical parts. In a sense, however, animals are all head even though they can perceive with their whole body, not just the head. Their nerve-sense organism is mostly located in their head. That is where their relationship to the outer world develops.

When we now look at the overall organization of animals and see that the opposite pole to the head organism is the tail end, then in terms of the animals' physical, etheric, and astral organization, we can say that their astral mobility flows from the back to the front. The streams of their astral body are continuously flowing from the back to the front and meet the sensory impressions received through the sense organs in the head. Thus, the two streams merge. I can draw you a rough sketch of this; here the astral streams, flowing from the back to the front (red arrows), are met by the sensory impressions flowing from the head toward the tail end (yellow arrows). These two currents merge and work together throughout the animals' organism.

You can see this merging clearly in dogs. Upon seeing its master, a dog wags its tail. This shows the dog received the sensory impression of its master, which flows from the front to the back, and this is now met by the astral stream. This streaming of the whole organism from the back to the front manifests in the wagging of the tail. There is complete harmony. If you want to know how joy is expressed in the physiognomy of a dog, you should not look so much at its face when it sees its master but rather at the wagging tail.

The Earth and the stars

Basically, this applies to all animals. In lower species, for example, in fish, we cannot see this as clearly because their astral body is more independent. However, with clairvoyant consciousness we can see it all the more clearly. Clairvoyant consciousness knows that when a fish perceives through its nerve-sense apparatus that something is floating toward it, the fish sends its own astral stream from the back toward the front to meet the impression from the outside. As a result, there is a wonderful glittering merging of what the fish sees and what it brings to meet the perception. This deep meshing of the astral stream from the outside—after all, what a being receives with sensory impressions is an astral stream from the outside—and the astral stream flowing from the back to the front is interrupted in human beings because we stand upright.

Because we are upright beings, we cannot send astral streams to meet our sensory impressions as directly as, for example, dogs can. Dogs have a horizontal spine. Thus, the astral stream from the back to the front goes through their head. Our head stands out, so to speak. Therefore, the relationship between the astral currents flowing from the back to the front (which are what our inner being consists of) and the other ones coming through our sensory impressions is not as simple as it is in animals.

We have to study carefully what I have just explained if we want to understand how the moral intervenes in our physical nature. We do not concede morality to animals because in them the streaming of the astral from back to front and from front to back is not interrupted at all. In human beings, however, the following occurs: Our head is lifted out of the astral current that flows from back to front. This signifies the incarnation of our I. It is because our blood flows not only horizontally but also upward as the bearer of our inner I-forces that we experience this I as our own, individual I. That is also why our head, the main carrier of our sensory impressions, is at first completely focused on the outer world. Due to the way we are organized, our sense of touch is much more loosely connected to that of sight than is the case in animals. When animals see something, they immediately have the feeling of touching what they are looking at. The sense of touch is stimulated by their sight. This stimulation of the sense of touch then combines with the current flowing from the back to the front. In contrast, our head is lifted above this and focused exclusively on the outer world, as is obvious above all in our sense of sight. In a way, our sense of sight is a kind of etheric sense. For example, we learn only gradually to judge distances and so on, and we mostly see what is expressed in color and shades of color. Just remember that painting in perspective was not developed until the age of intellectualism. Earlier artists did not yet paint in perspective. It was only later, by way of judgment and intellectualism, that human eyes became used to seeing the reality that is expressed in perspective, in distances.

Our eyes see mostly color, contrasts, and shades of light and dark. Light covers all objects; it actually originates in the cosmos. The sun sends out its light, and since the light coming from the cosmos falls on objects on the earth and is reflected by them, our eyes actually do not see things by means of earthly forces but only with the help of cosmic forces.

This is symptomatic of our head in general. It is more open to the etheric element in the world than to the physical. We actually find our way in the physical world more by moving around in it and touching it than by using the sense organs in our head. Imagine how ghostly, how etheric ghostly, the world would be if we did not find our bearings in space through our sense of touch but had to rely only on what our eyes tell us. Animal heads are organized entirely differently from the human head. The animals' organization is much more closely connected with physical reality through the head than our organization. The perceptions of our head are like ideals because they are etheric. In fact, with our head we live completely in an etheric world.

The outer shape of our head is an image of the cosmos—and this is not a mere superficiality. In contrast, the various shapes of animal heads are a direct expression of the animals' corporeality. You will not find the cosmic rounded shape of the human head in the animal kingdom. Our head is indeed an image of the cosmic spheres. We have developed this shape because we have a vertical body axis and not a horizontal one as the animals do. In a sense, we have risen beyond the horizontal into the vertical.

We can see this especially clearly when we look at our organization as a whole. The physical organization of our head is attached to an etheric organization that mirrors the purity of the cosmos. The organization of our head in the etheric body is hardly at all in contact with earthly elements throughout our life on earth. In its etheric and even more so in its astral elements it remains completely cosmic. In fact, when we pass on from one earthly life to the next, the rest of our bodily organization, that is, the part below the head, is transformed. It undergoes a metamorphosis, not in its physical matter but in its force constellation, and becomes the head of our next incarnation. Of course, as a system of forces, the head of our present incarnation vanishes after our death. In other words, to develop into head organization, our physical organization first has to go through the cosmos. Our head organization cannot develop on earth. Through our head we are completely open to the cosmos, but through the rest of our organization we are bound to the earthly realm.

The shape of animal heads develops out of the rest of their organization. However, our head in a sense lifts itself with a certain amount of independence out of our organization. Now, the rest of our organization pushes its way into our head in our changing gestures and facial expressions. For example, if you are inwardly agitated because you are frightened, then what is in your metabolism and blood circulation is expressed through the forces of your organism in your changing expressions and the sudden paling of your face. Other emotions affect us similarly. In other words, what lives in the rest of our organism pours soul-spiritually, that is, astrally, into our head. What lives astrally in the rest of our organism becomes manifest in our complexion and, above all, in our changing expressions, in our physiognomy, in the physiognomy and mobility of our head.

It is highly interesting to observe the facial expressions accompanying what somebody is saying to us—which comes from his or her I. We can read in the person's face what lives in his or her astral body. If you observe the face of someone speaking to you, you receive that person's I with his or her words and the other's astral body with the facial expressions accompanying the words. The astral organism of the head, which causes the changing features, is connected to an etheric organism, which is a wonderful image of the cosmos. It is very strange to observe with supersensible sight a person speaking. One sees the astral body making itself felt everywhere in the person's changing features, but the etheric organism of the head is hardly touched at all by the facial expressions. The etheric organism of the head refuses to assimilate the facial expressions into itself, into its forms.

For instance, it is very interesting to see that certain hymns permeate a person's astral body with a feeling of holiness and are easily assimilated into the etheric organization of the head. In the process, the etheric body accompanies the facial expressions with a play of light in its facial region. However, in the parts of the etheric body that lie further back, away from the face, there the etheric body puts up a strong resistance against assimilating any processes from the changing features.

This shows you that while our head is in a way related to the rest of our organism, this connection is governed by certain laws because the etheric body is an image of the cosmos. It wants to maintain this shape of the cosmos and does not want to deviate from it, especially not because of what comes from the passions and instincts of human nature.

Our facial expressions are contingent on our temperament, character, and various soul and physical characteristics. They are visible, but there is still another physiognomy that is even much more vivid, but it is in our unconscious. It is supersensible and beyond the scope of our sensory perception. When you look at our astral body, in particular the part that is connected to the metabolic-limb system that surrounds and permeates our legs and abdomen, you will see a very expressive physiognomy if you have supersensible perception. The strange thing is that this physiognomy is revealed from the outside in. Thus, while the physiognomy accompanying our words and expressing our interest in our surroundings is revealed on the outside, another physiognomy that we are not conscious of is revealed on the inside.

I would like to explain this with a diagram (see drawing below). Here we have a human being; there is the astral body (red) that causes the facial expressions visible on the outside, and here is another part of that same astral body (yellow). In the astral body up here (see drawing, top part), our physiognomy is visible on the outside, but down here in the other part (see drawing, bottom part), we have a physiognomy manifesting entirely on the inside. The latter part of the astral body faces toward the inside. We are usually not aware of this, but it is nevertheless true. Children continuously turn this physiognomy of the lower part of the astral body toward their inside; by the time they become adults, the expressions or features become more or less permanently turned to the inside.

physiognomy of man

Now let me tell you what is behind all this. When we have an impulse to do what is rightly called a good or moral deed, our inner physiognomy is different from what it would be if we had an impulse to do something evil. We have, in a sense, an ugly physiognomy on the inside when we carry out a selfish deed. After all, all moral deeds are basically unselfish, and all immoral ones egotistic. However, in everyday life this moral difference is masked by the fact that people can be very immoral, that is, full of selfish motives, but still follow a conventional code of morality. Of course, this code is not at all their own. Rather, people are stuck in what they were taught since childhood, or in doing things because they are worried about what others will say. True morality, however, that lives in the human individuality means that our good deeds originate in our interest in other people. We can develop this interest by feeling within ourselves what others feel and experience. Basically, immorality means that we close ourselves off against the feelings of others and are unsympathetic. To have morally good thoughts is to put oneself in someone else's place; to have morally evil thoughts is to be unable to do so. This can then develop into laws and conventional rules, things people get embarrassed about—or don't. Actions that are, in fact, selfish can be deeply buried beneath conventions. Fundamentally, however, morality cannot be judged on the basis of what people do; we have to go deeper into the character and nature of human beings to determine the moral value of a person.

Our moral value is expressed in the astral body; its lower part turns a beautiful countenance toward the inside when unselfish deeds and impulses live in us. When selfish and evil impulses live in us, then this part of the astral body turns an ugly countenance toward the inside. Thus, when we can read with spiritual accuracy what is inside a person, we can tell by this physiognomy whether he or she is good or evil, just as we can assess people's other characteristics by their facial expressions. All this is not accessible to our usual consciousness, but it is there nevertheless. It is impossible for dishonesty not to enter deeply into the dishonest person. Now, an out-and-out villain may have complete control over his facial expressions and have the most innocent face you can imagine while he is plotting more villainy; yet, what is in his astral body, in his inner physiognomy and features, he cannot disguise. There he turns into a regular devil the moment his immoral motives appear. On the outside such a villain may seem as innocent as a baby, but inside he looks like a devil; as a pure egotist, he grins diabolically at his own heart. This law applies as much as the natural laws.

Now, the crucial point is that when an ugly physiognomy develops down here (see lower part of drawing), the head, being used to the cosmos, repels it and does not take it in. As a result, we form in our etheric body, similar to Ahriman's, its atrophied head reduced to the instinctual. Everything goes into the lower members of the etheric body. The head will not accept any of it, and we then become ahrimanic in the lower part of our etheric body. Then our head, too, becomes permeated with what this ahrimanic body pushes up into it. The strange thing here is that our head, already in its warmth ether, rejects the physiognomy of immorality and does not let it enter.

Consequently, immoral people have an etheric-ahrimanic organism within them, but the shape and function of their head is not influenced by that. Their head is still an image of the cosmos, but it is less and less a part of them because they cannot permeate it with their own being. Immoral people do not advance far beyond their previous incarnation. Their head, developed through the transformation of the rest of their body from the preceding incarnation, remains unchanged; thus, they have not advanced much by the time they die.

On the other hand, the inner effects of our moral imagination create a vertical stream up into our head. Nothing immoral can stream in the vertical direction. It is pushed back pressed together, and makes the person ahrimanic. Only what is moral can stream in the vertical direction. In fact the physiognomy of the immoral is repelled in its vertical movement already in the etheric, already in the warmth ether of the blood. Our head does not take it in. However the moral enters our head with the warmth of the blood already in the warmth ether, and even more so in the light ether, the chemical ether, and the life ether. Then we permeate our head with our own being.

What happens there is indeed an intervention of the moral in the physical organization, for we can say that our etheric head organization has an affinity for the moral in us but not for the immoral. Of course, if we do not go beyond physical, sensory perception, we cannot see how our moral impulses work into our physical organization by way of the etheric. We have to look at the human being as a whole, including the etheric and astral organization, to see how the moral intervenes in the human organism.

As you can imagine, this looks different when we are dead. If our head has repelled the forces of our remaining organization, then in our etheric body, which we cast off after a few days, there will be nothing left of us. Then we cannot have much of an effect on the world, and we cannot work on the further development of the earth because we do not send forces into what will last into the future. If we have developed moral impulses that have entered our head, then our etheric body leaves us after death in the form of a human being.

The etheric body of immoral persons, on the other hand, looks completely ahrimanic when it leaves them. We can get a good idea of the shape of Ahriman even without trying to meet Ahriman himself; we only need to look at the etheric body of immoral persons, whose form has become completely ahrimanic, merging into the cosmos. However, the etheric body that leaves the I and the astral body of a moral individual two or three days after death will be humanized, well-rounded, and serene.

Such individuals assimilate their experiences during life with their head, and through the head's resemblance to the cosmos, they can then give them to the cosmos. As I said, our head resembles the cosmos, but the rest of our organism does not. Instead, after it has been given over to the cosmos, the rest of our organism will be scattered and fall back onto the earth or enter streams that circle the earth. However, our morality that we have imprinted into our head will be poured out into the cosmos, and that is how we participate in the reshaping of the cosmos.

In other words, by being moral or immoral we actively work on the future of the earth. Immoral people present the forces surrounding the earth with what drizzles down onto the earth etherically and reunites with it, or what lives in the orbit around the earth. These surrounding forces are important for all earth activity because the physical of the earth develops eventually out of the etheric. On the other hand, moral people have taken into their head the forces that develop especially through moral impulses, and they therefore give to the cosmos what they have achieved on earth.

If we remain within the limits of the earth, we cannot see how moral impulses actually work; they remain only abstractions for us. For example, consider what a moral philosopher such as Herbart says about moral impulses.1Johann Friedrich Herbart, 1776-1841, German philosopher and educator. Developed a general metaphysical theory of pluralistic realism, important especially for its psychology, which rejected notions of faculties and innate ideas and constructed full theory on which to ground a pedagogy similar to that of Pestalozzi. He distinguishes five kinds of moral impulses: inner freedom, benevolence, perfection, fairness, and honesty. People living according to these five virtues would be moral people for Herbart. However, Herbart is unable to say anything more concrete and specific. He can only characterize an individual as moral; he cannot explain what this means for the world.

Yesterday I told you about the four cardinal virtues Nietzsche distinguished; his grouping is a bit different from Herbart's. Nietzsche listed honesty with oneself and one's friends, courage toward one's enemies, magnanimity toward the vanquished, and courtesy to everyone. Other moral philosophers have listed other virtues. However, all these virtues remain abstractions as long as we look at the human being only as a physical organism. In a sense, presenting people with these virtues as moral impulses is like giving an order to a machine. You can persuade and coax a machine all you want—it will not dream of accepting any of your impulses. Similarly, human beings, as they are defined by our modern world view, cannot accept any moral impulses. To understand the reality and effectiveness of the moral we have to enter the supersensible realm. The physiognomy turned toward the inside, the gesture turned inward—they are supersensible. Depending on whether they are moral or immoral, they are either taken in or rejected by the head, and then either flow into the cosmos or shatter on the earth, burst, and are scattered everywhere.

Thus, even a moral philosopher with the inner force of Nietzsche is at loose ends with his moral principles; he can only solidify them in the way I described yesterday. However, that would still not be a true solidity. In spite of all his explanations in Beyond Good and Evil, he had to trace everything to the physical body.2See Lecture Seven, note 11. That is why he failed. Thus, to understand the effectiveness of the moral we have to go beyond the merely physical order of the world and enter the supersensible realm. We have to realize that while morality radiates into the physical in an abstract way, we can understand and assess its activity only in the realm of the supersensible.