Donate books to help fund our work. Learn more→

The Rudolf Steiner Archive

a project of Steiner Online Library, a public charity

Karmic Relationships VII
GA 239

Lecture I

7 June 1924, Breslau

It is by pointing to all-embracing secrets of cosmic existence that anthroposophical wisdom penetrates most deeply into the foundations of human life, for man is the microcosm in which all these secrets of the Universe are concentrated. The illumination coming from this vista of the Cosmos extends not only into the days but into the very hours of man's life in that it sheds light upon his karma, upon all the things that at every moment closely concern him. And so in these lectures I shall speak from many different angles of the anthroposophical basis of those ideas and conceptions which enable karma in human life to be more clearly recognised.

In man's earthly life between birth and death, two events or moments stand out clearly and distinctly from all others. One of them—it is not, of course, a ‘moment’ in the literal sense but you will understand what is meant—is the moment when as a being of spirit-and-soul, man comes down to earthly life, into a physical body which serves as an instrument for his activity on Earth. Not only does he clothe himself in this physical body but in it transforms his whole nature in order to become active on Earth. This is the moment, the event, of birth and conception—the beginning of earthly life. The other event is that of man's departure from earthly life, when he returns through the gate of death into the spiritual world.

Thinking, to begin with, of this latter event, we know that during the first hours and days after a man's death, the physical form remains preserved to a certain extent. But the question arises: How is this physical human form related to Nature, to the existence surrounding us in earthly life in the several kingdoms of Nature? Is the relation of these kingdoms of Nature, of external Nature as a whole to these remains of the human being such that they would be capable of preserving the structure intact? No, it is not. Nature is able only to destroy the physical form that has been built up since man's entry into earthly life; at death, the form which man regards as that of his earthly existence begins to disintegrate. Anyone who thinks deeply enough about this very obvious truth will realise that in the physical human form itself lies the refutation of the materialistic view. If the materialistic view were correct, it would have to be said that the human form is built up by Nature. But it is not so! Nature cannot build the human form, but only destroy it. This thought makes a very potent impression but one that is often quite wrongly formulated. It remains in the unconscious region of the soul, making itself strongly felt in everything we experience concerning the riddle of death. Now the express aim of Anthroposophy is to bring these riddles which life itself presents to any impartial mind, to the degree of solution necessary for the right conduct of life. Hence Anthroposophy must at the outset direct attention to the event of death.

On the other side there is the event of birth. Impartial self-observation is essential here if a picture comparable to that of death is to be obtained. This self-observation must be deeply concerned with the nature of human thinking. Thinking can be applied to everything that goes on in the physical world. We form our thoughts of what goes on in the world. If we did not do so we could not be men in the true sense for the power to form thoughts distinguishes us from all other beings around us in the realm of the Earth. But impartial observation of our thoughts makes them appear widely removed from the reality of existence around us. When we are engrossed in thought we become inwardly abstract, inwardly cold, in comparison with what we are in heart and soul when we surrender ourselves to life. No impartial mind will ever doubt that thoughts, as such, have a cold, abstract, arid quality. But clear insight into the life of thought should be one of the first meditative experiences of an anthroposophist. In contemplating this life of thought he will discern in it something very similar to the spectacle presented by a corpse. What is characteristic of the sight of a human corpse? As it lies there before us, we say to ourselves: A human soul and a human spirit once lived in this structure and have now departed from it. A corpse lies there as a husk of the soul and the spirit. But at the same time it provides us with proof that the world external to man could never have produced this particular structure, that it could have proceeded only from the soul and spirit, from the innermost core of man's nature, that it is the residue of something now no longer present. In its very form a corpse discloses that it is no truth in itself but only a remains of truth, having meaning only when soul and spirit are within it. In the form that remains a great deal has been lost but a corpse nevertheless shows that it was once the dwelling-place of soul and spirit.

If the eye of the soul is directed to the life of thought, this too, although from a rather different standpoint, will appear to have something corpse-like about it. Impartial observation of our own thinking reveals that in itself it can no more have real existence than the human form can have real existence in a corpse. In apprehending external Nature, there is as little intrinsic reality in human thinking as there is in a corpse. External Nature can certainly be apprehended by thoughts but can never herself produce them. For if Nature in herself were capable of producing thoughts there could be no such thing as logic which perceives, independently of all laws of Nature, what is sound or false in thinking. When we discern what a thought in the earthly world really is, it must appear to us as a corpse of the soul, just as what remains at the death of a human being appears as a physical corpse. The form of a corpse is comprehensible only when we see it as the remains left behind at death by a living man.—Imagine for a moment that there were on the Earth only a single human being, and that at his death a being belonging to the planet Mars were to come down and look at his corpse. It would be utterly incomprehensible to such a being. Were he to study all the forms in the mineral, plant and animal kingdoms he would find no explanation of how the form lying there dead could have come into existence. For this form is not only a contradiction in itself, it is a manifest contradiction of the whole extra-human, earthly world. Its very existence betrays that it has been abandoned by something; for by itself it could not exist.

So it is with our thoughts. If external Nature alone were responsible for producing them, they could never be as they are: they are a corpse of the soul, comparable with a physical corpse. The very existence of a corpse is evidence that something has died. What is it that has died in the case of thoughts? It is the kind of thinking that was ours before we came down into the earthly world. Abstract thinking is the corpse of what was once living thinking. The thinking of a soul as yet without a body is related to the form which thinking assumes in earthly existence as the human soul and spirit are related to the corpse. And we men in the physical body are the grave in which the pre-earthly, living life of the soul has been entombed. The thoughts were once alive in the soul; the soul has died to the spiritual world. We bear within us not the living thoughts but the corpse of the thoughts.

This is the picture presented by the spectacle of birth—the side of earthly life opposite to that of death. We speak more correctly than is usual in our time when we say: the spiritual in man dies through birth, the physical part of man dies through death.

If we find the approach to Anthroposophy through pondering on the phenomenon of death and so realising that our thinking is a corpse compared with pre-earthly thinking, our vista of man and of life on the Earth widens and we prepare in the right way to receive the teachings and the wisdom of Anthroposophy. The reason why it is so difficult for men to find the natural path to Anthroposophy is their erroneous conception of what is still present—although as a corpse—in earthly existence. To-day they place too high a value upon thinking but do not know what it really is: they know it only in its corpse-like character.

When we guide our thoughts in the direction I have been trying to indicate, the two sides of the eternal life of the human soul are brought into strong relief. In modern parlance there is only one word—a word fundamentally the offspring of human hopes—for the half of Eternity that begins now and has no end. We have only the word ‘Immortality,’ because the question of what happens after death is of foremost importance to the men of our time. All their interests in life are bound up with knowing what happens after death. But there were epochs in the evolution of humanity when something else was of importance too. With his more egoistic thinking to-day a man says: ‘What comes after death interests me because I should like to know whether my life will continue thereafter; what preceded birth or conception does not interest me.’ He does not think about pre-earthly life as he does about the life after death. But the Eternity of the human soul has these two sides: Immortality and ‘Unborn-ness.’ Earlier Mystery-languages of men who under the conditions prevailing in their day still had vision of the super-sensible world, had a word also for ‘Unborn-ness,’ whereas we can formulate one only with difficulty, by deliberately turning our minds to these matters. Thereby we are also led to realise the essential difference between the laws of Nature and the laws governing human, destiny.

Our human destiny seems, to begin with, to depend upon chance. Acting upon some urge or impulse, we achieve one thing or another and have to admit, in respect of ordinary life, that in innumerable cases the destiny of many a really good man brings him hard, painful and tragic experiences, whereas it will often happen that to one whose aims are far from good, life brings no hard but actually happy experiences.

With our ordinary, everyday consciousness we do not perceive the connection between what proceeds from our own soul and the destiny that befalls us. We see that the good may be followed by heavy blows of fate and that evil is not necessarily followed by anything except relatively favourable destiny. In the happenings of Nature we perceive how under the sway of necessity, effects follow causes, but in respect of the spiritual reality in which our normal life is contained this sway of necessity is not in evidence. Nevertheless an impartial survey of our life impels us to say: we ourselves have sought the stream of our destiny.

Let a man who has reached a certain age in this incarnation observe his earlier life quite objectively and impartially. He is, let us say, fifty years of age, and he surveys the course of the years back to childhood. He will then perceive how, following some inner urge, he himself made the approach to everything that befell him. It is not always a pleasant experience. But as he follows the events of his life backwards, he will be obliged to admit in respect of those that were really decisive that he made straight for those events in time, just as he may make straight for some point in space. The stream of destiny issues from ourselves. And so it is understandable when men such as Goethe's elderly friend Knebel say that observation of human life clearly reveals a plan running through it from beginning to end. True, this plan is not always such that in looking back over it a man will always insist that he would act in the same way again. But when he closely observes the details of his actions and their consequences, he will always perceive that an inner urge led from the earlier to the later. Thus are the various events in our lives explained. And this enables us to perceive that the law taking effect through our moral life of soul is entirely different from the law taking effect in the life of Nature. All this helps to create the attitude which should be adopted towards the spiritual investigator who from his vision of the spiritual world is as well able to describe the laws governing the forming of destiny as the naturalist is able to describe the laws of Nature. And to understand the working of spiritual law in the Universe is the task of Anthroposophy in our present age.

You will remember that in the book Occult Science: An Outline and elsewhere too, I have said that the Moon shining down upon us from the heavens was once united with the Earth, that at a certain point of time the physical Moon separated from the Earth and in a future age will again unite with it. Now it was not only the physical Moon that separated but with it went certain Beings who were on Earth when the physical Moon and the Earth were still one body. When we think of the spiritual treasures that have been contained in the evolution of humanity we shall be led inevitably to the conclusion that although in our present age men are exceedingly clever—and nearly all of them are—yet they are not truly wise. Treasures of wisdom, expressed not in an intellectual but in a more poetic, pictorial form, existed at the beginning of man's evolution on Earth, scattered through mankind by great Teachers, primeval Teachers who lived among men on Earth. These primeval Teachers were not incarnated in physical bodies, but only in etheric bodies and relations with them were different from relations between physical human beings. These Teachers moved about the Earth in etheric bodies and a man whose guide and leader they became felt in his soul their nearness to him. He felt something like an inspiration streaming into his soul; it was like an inner flashing up of truths, of visions too—for the teachings were imparted in a spiritual way. In that epoch of Earth evolution, beings were really of two categories: the visible and, for physical eyes, the invisible. Men did not clamour for sight of those beings who were not visible for they were able to receive their teachings without seeing them. Men heard the teachings rising up from within their souls and said to themselves: ‘One of the great primeval Teachers of humanity has now drawn near to me.’ No attempt was made to form any external pictures of these great Teachers. Men encountered them in spiritual experiences, they did not stretch out physical hands towards these Teachers, but encountered them nevertheless and felt something that was like a spiritual grasp of the hand.

It was these primeval Teachers who imparted to mankind the great treasures of wisdom of which only echoes have survived, even in creations such as the Vedas and the Vedanta philosophy. Even these great teachings of the East are no more than echoes. A primeval wisdom once spread among humanity on the Earth and then perished, in order that out of themselves, by their own volition, men might again be able to scale the heights to the spiritual world. Human freedom would not have been possible if the primeval Teachers had remained among men. Hence a comparatively short time after the Moon had separated from the Earth they followed in its wake, establishing their abode upon it. And there they have dwelt, supreme among the denizens of this Moon colony, ever since they separated from the Earth, leaving human beings to their own resources. Although we who pass from one earthly life to another no longer meet these great Teachers on Earth, we do so very shortly after passing through the gate of death. When the physical body has been laid aside at death, our etheric body expands and expands, but also becomes evanescent, and finally dissolves in the Universe. As soon as the etheric body has been laid aside a few days after death, we feel that our existence is no longer on the Earth but in the immediate environment of the Earth. When a few days have passed after death we feel that we are no longer living on the Earth; it is as though this terrestrial body has expanded as far as the sphere encircled by the orbit of the Moon. We feel that we are living on a magnified Earth; the Moon is no longer felt to be a separate body, but the whole sphere is felt as a unity, demarcated by the Moon's orbit; the Earth has expanded to become the Moon sphere, and has become spiritual. We are within the Moon sphere and there we remain for a considerable time after death. But to begin with we come together again with those spiritual Beings who at the beginning of man's existence on Earth were the great primeval Teachers. They are the first Beings whom we encounter in the Cosmos after our death; we eventually come again into their realm and there undergo a remarkable experience.

It might seem easy to picture existence after death—I shall still have to speak of its duration—as being shadowy in comparison with the life on Earth which gives the impression of being so robust. We can take hold of the things of earthly life; they, like physical men, are solid, compact; we say that something is real when we can actually take hold of it. But after death this robust earthly life seems like a dream, for entry into the Moon sphere brings us into an existence where everything seems to be much more real, much more saturated with reality than can ever be the case on Earth. This is because the great primeval Teachers of humanity who continue their existence in the Moon sphere permeate us with their own being, and enable everything to appear to us with greater reality than that which, as men of the Earth, we experience in the things of the world. And what is it that we experience in the Moon sphere?

Our experience of earthly life is, after all, fragmentary. Looking back over earthly life with ordinary consciousness, it appears to us as a single, continuous stream. But what has it been in reality? A day that has already become shadowy was followed by a night of which ordinary consciousness has no remembrance. Another day is followed by another night—and so it goes on. In memory we string together only the days but in a true retrospect the days must always be interrupted by what we have experienced during the nights. Ordinary consciousness fails here, and with a certain justification, because it is extinguished in sleep. When we are among these Moon Beings who were once the primeval Teachers of humanity, we live through precisely what we experienced during the nights here on the Earth. The length of time this form of existence in the Moon sphere lasts can therefore be computed. If a man is not an abnormally long sleeper he spends about one third of the duration of his earthly life in sleep. And life in the Moon sphere lasts for just so long, that is to say, for about one third of the duration of the life on Earth. A man who reaches the age of twenty spends about seven years in the Moon sphere; one who reaches the age of sixty, about twenty years, and so on. We live among these Beings and they permeate us with their form of existence.

But in order to understand life in this sphere we must think of what a man becomes when the physical body is laid aside. This is within the ken of an Initiate, and also of the dead. The moment a man has left the physical body behind at death, he is within the world that is outside that body. If as I stand here I were to go out of my body, I should first of all be within this table here, and then more and more deeply within everything around me in the world—only not inside my own skin. What was hitherto my inner world now becomes my outer world, and everything that was formerly my outer world becomes my inner world. My moral life too, becomes outer world. Suppose that I once gave another person a box on the ear in anger and my action made a grave moral impression upon him. Now I live backwards over my life to its fortieth year when I injured him in this way; in my life I may have laughed about the incident, but now I experience, not what I experienced at the time, but his physical pain, his moral suffering. With my whole being I am within him. In reality it was the same every night during sleep, but then it remained below the level of consciousness; it was a picture only, not an actual experience. After death, when we are permeated with the substance of the great primeval Teachers in the Moon sphere, the experience is infinitely more intense than it was on Earth. What on Earth is like a dream, is in yonder world a far stronger reality—and this is what we experience. This same intense reality is experienced, too, by one who with clairvoyant consciousness is able to follow a human being on his way after death and, through the attainment of Inspiration and super-sensible vision, to live with him as a real presence. Then we realise that the experiences through which men pass after death have far greater intensity and reality than the experiences undergone before death. And to experience what a human being is undergoing in his existence after death makes an incomparably stronger impression than earthly influences can ever make. To give you an example.—

Some of you will certainly be familiar with the figure of Strader in my Mystery Plays. The figure of Strader is drawn more or less from real life; such a personality existed and interested me profoundly. I followed the external life of this personality who is portrayed, with certain poetic modifications, in the figure of Strader. You know that I have written four Mystery Plays, in the last of which Strader dies. In 1913, when this fourth play was written, I could do no otherwise than let Strader die. And why? As long as the prototype of Strader was living in the physical world, my attention had been focused upon that prototype. But in the meantime this prototype had died. The whole man interested me so deeply that I continued to follow him, and the impressions coming from his life after death were so strong that they completely extinguished all interest in what he had been in his life on Earth. Not that the sympathy had waned, but it was simply not adequate after one had followed what he was experiencing after his physical death. In order to give these tremendously strong impressions some kind of poetic form, I was obliged to let Strader die, because his prototype had passed into the after-death existence—and the impressions coming from that were infinitely stronger than those of his earlier life on Earth.

This had practical consequences. One or two friends guessed who Strader's prototype had been in real life and with a certain noble devotedness set about investigating his literary estate. When with great delight they brought their findings to me, I was obliged, involuntarily, to be rather discourteous, because these findings did not interest me in the slightest. The strength of the impressions of the life after death effaced any interest in relics of the earthly life brought me by friends. And so indeed it is. These impressions, which are due to the fact that the Moon Beings imbue their very substance into man, drown everything that can be experienced in earthly life and infuse reality into existence. Hence, too, the compensatory deed is fraught with greater reality, since it results from experience of what a particular action signified to the one against whom it was directed. And our experience of what the other suffered is stronger than that caused in us by our own action.

Out of the experiences we undergo after death in the realm of the great primeval Teachers of humanity, the first seed of karma is formed. For there we resolve to make compensation for what we have done. Resolves, intentions, here take actual effect. On Earth the good does not always seem to be followed by good, nor evil by evil. But the resolves taken in a world of far greater reality than the earthly world, the experience that we ourselves must make compensation for what we have done—these resolves will lead in the later life to actual adjustment.

It is my intention to describe to you how karma gradually takes shape for a new life when, having lived through the time between death and rebirth, a man appears again in another incarnation. During the first period after death, through our communion with the Moon Beings, we form the resolve to fulfil our karma. I shall therefore try to give you a concrete picture of the stages by which in the life between death and a new birth, man's karma is formulated.