Our bookstore is now open. Shop today →

The Rudolf Steiner Archive

a project of Steiner Online Library, a public charity

The Renewal of Education
GA 301

II. Three Aspects of the Human Being

21 April 1920, Basel

To our modern way of thinking, it can be difficult to describe the particular characteristics of spiritual science. It is natural to judge something new according to what we already know. Spiritual science, in the way I mean it here, differs from what we normally call science. It does not give things another content or put forth other ideas, but it speaks about a very different human being. It is because of this other perspective that spiritual science can be fruitful for education. If I were asked to explain this difference, I would give the following preliminary description.

When we study something these days, we think we gain some ideas about this or that. Then, depending upon the strength of our memory, we carry those ideas with us for the rest of our lives. We remember things; therefore we know them. Spiritual science is not to be practiced in that way. Certainly people often see it that way, out of habit, but those who take it up like a collection of notes do not value it properly. They approach reality in a way that is just as foreign to life as our sensory, material manner of consideration is. For instance, if someone were to say that she ate and drank yesterday and having done that, she would not need to eat or drink again the rest of her life, you would think that is nonsense. The human organism must continually renew its connection with those things it needs from external nature. It can do nothing other than enter this process of receiving and working with what it takes in time and again.

In a way, it is the same with spiritual science. Spiritual science gives something that enlivens the inner human being and must be renewed for it to remain alive within the human being. For that reason, spiritual science is much closer to the creative powers of the human being than normal knowledge, and that is why it can actually stimulate us from many directions to work as with this most precious material, the developing human being.

It is not immediately obvious that spiritual science is alive in that regard. However, if you patiently consider those things that our modern habits say must be presented more abstractly, you will notice that they slowly become genuinely alive. We then not only have knowledge of facts, but also something that at each moment, in each hour, we can use to give life to the school. If you are patient, you will see that spiritual science goes in quite a different direction, and that those people who treat it like any other knowledge, like a collection of notes, damage it the most.

I wanted to offer these preliminary thoughts, as you will need to consider the things I need to say today in that light. Yesterday I mentioned that we can genuinely understand the human being from various perspectives, and that these lead us to a unified view of the body, soul, and spirit. I said that in spiritual science we speak of the physical human being, the etheric human being, the astral human being, and the I. Each of these aspects of human nature has three aspects of its own.

Let us first look at the human being from the physical perspective. Here the modern physiological perspective is often inaccurate and does not arrive at a truly mobile view of the nature of the human being. After a thirty-year study, I mentioned these things in my book, Riddles of the Soul, published two or three years ago. At the beginning, I spoke of the natural division of the physical human being into three parts. Now I will present these at this point in our course more as a report to substantiate what I say. If we consider the human being first from the physical perspective, it is important to first look at the fact that it perceives the external world through its senses. The senses, which are, in a way, localized at the periphery of the human organism, are brought further into the human being by the nerves. Anyone who simply includes the senses and nerves with the rest really does not observe the human being in a way that leads to clear understanding of its nature. There is a high degree of independence, of individuality, in what I would call the nerve-sense human being. Because modern people consider the whole human being as some nebulous unity, science cannot comprehend the fundamental independence of the nerve-sense human being. You will understand me better when I describe this further.

A second independent aspect of the physical human being lies within our organism. I call it the rhythmic organism. It is the part of our respiratory, circulatory, and lymphatic systems that is rhythmic. Everything that has rhythmic activity within the human being is part of the second system, which is relatively independent from the nerve-sense system. It is as though these two systems exist alongside one another, independently, yet in communication with one another. Modern science’s vague concept of a unified human being does not exist.

The third aspect is also relatively independent of the whole human being. I call it the metabolic organism. If you look at the activities of these three aspects of the human being, the nervesense being, the human being that lives in certain rhythmic activities, and the human being who lives in the metabolism, you have everything that exists in human nature to the extent that it is an active organism. At the same time, you have an indication of three independent systems within the human organism. Modern science creates quite false concepts about these three independent systems when it states that the life of the soul is connected with the nerves. This is a habit of thought that has established itself since about the end of the eighteenth century.

In order to develop a feeling for these three aspects of the body, I would like to discuss their relationship to the soul. Allow me to state first that everything that is concentrated in the human metabolic system, that is an activity of the metabolic system, is directly connected with human willing. The part of the human being represented by the circulatory system is directly connected with feeling, while the nerve-sense system is connected with thinking.

You can see that modern science has created some incorrect concepts here. It says that the human soul life is strongly connected with the life of the nerves, or with the nerves and senses, and that thinking, feeling, and willing are directly connected with the nerves; through the nerves the soul indirectly transfers its activity to the circulatory, the rhythmic, and metabolic systems. This brings considerable confusion into our understanding of the human being. People become more removed from their own nature instead of being brought nearer to it.

Just as thinking is connected with nerve-sense life, feeling is directly connected with the human rhythmic system. Feeling, as soul life, pulsates in our breathing, blood circulation, and lymphatic system and is connected with these systems just as directly as thinking is with the nerve system. The will is directly connected with the metabolism. Something always happens in the human metabolism when a will activity is present. The nerves are not at all connected to willing, as is usually stated. The will has a direct relationship to the metabolism, and the person perceives this relationship through the nerves. That is the genuine relationship. The nerve system has no task other than thinking. Whether we think of some external object, or whether what we think about occurs in our metabolism in relation to the will, the nerves always have the same task.

Modern science speaks of sense nerves, which it presumes exist in order to provide impressions of the external world from the periphery of the body to the central organ. We also hear that motor nerves exist to carry will impulses from the central system to the periphery of the body. I will speak more of this later. People have created very clever theories to prove that this difference between the sense and motor nerves exists. But this difference does not exist. More important than these clever theories is the fact that you can cut a motor nerve and then connect one end to the end of a sense nerve that you have also cut. This then becomes a nerve of one kind. It shows that we can find no real differences in function between the motor and sense nerves, even in an anatomical or physiological sense. The so-called motor nerves do not carry will impulses from the central organ to the human periphery.

In reality motor nerves are also sense nerves. They exist so that if I, for example, moved a finger, there is a direct relationship between the decision and the metabolism of the finger, so my will can exercise a direct influence upon the metabolism of the finger. The so-called motor nerves perceive this change in the metabolic process. Without this perception of a metabolic process, no decision of the will can follow, since the human being depends upon perceiving what occurs within himself. This is just like our needing to perceive something in the external world if we are to know things and participate in them.

The differentiation between sense and motor nerves is a most willing servant of materialism. It is a servant that could have arisen in materialistic science only because a cheap comparison could be found for it in modern times, namely, the telegraph. We telegraph from one station to another and then telegraph back. It is approximately a picture of the process of telegraphy that people use to describe how the sense and motor nerves communicate between the periphery and the central organ. Of course, this whole picture was possible only in an age like the nineteenth century, when telegraphy played such an important role. Had telegraphy not existed, perhaps people would not have formed that picture. Instead they might have developed a more natural view of the corresponding processes.

It may seem as though I want to trample all these theories into the ground simply for the sake of being radical. It is not that easy. I began to study nerves as a very young man, and it was very earthshaking for me when I noticed that this theory served materialism. It did this by transforming what is a direct influence of the will upon the metabolism into something merely physical, into an imagined physical strand of nerves carrying the will impulse from the central organ to the periphery of the human being to the muscles. People simply imposed material processes upon the human organism.

In an act of will, there is in truth a direct connection between the will impulse of the soul and some process in the metabolism. The nerve exists only to transmit the perception of this process. To the same extent, the nerve also exists to transmit the perception necessary when there is a relationship between the person’s feeling and a process expressed in circulation. That is always the case when we feel. Essentially, the basis is not some nerve process; it is a modification of our circulation. With any feeling, there is a process that does not exist in the metabolism, but in the rhythm of circulation. What happens in the blood, in the lymphatic system, or in the non-metabolic aspects of the exchange of oxygen (the exchange of oxygen is actually metabolic, and to that extent it is a part of the transfer of will) — to the extent that we are dealing with the rhythmic processes of breathing — belongs to feeling. All feeling is directly connected with the rhythmic processes. Again, the nerves exist only to directly perceive what occurs between the feeling in the soul and the rhythmic processes in the organism. Nerves are only organs of perception. In a sense, spiritual science allows us to first see what it really means when time and again we find in textbooks on physiology or psychology: “We can make the hypothetical assumption that human beings have sense and motor nerves.” However, anatomically they are differentiated at most by small differences in thickness; certainly not by anything else. I will return to the speculations made by Tabes and others. Today I wanted only to give some indication of what is shown by an objective observation of the human organism as consisting of three aspects: namely, that the nerve-sense organism is related to the imaginative, thinking life of the soul. We have the rhythmic organism, which relates to the feeling life of the soul, and finally, the metabolic organism, which, in its broadest sense, is related to the willing life in the soul.

To clarify this, we can look at some part of life, say, music. The musical part of life is the best evidence (but only one among many we will encounter) of the particular relationship of feeling to the rhythmic life of the organism. The imaginative, thinking life connected with the nerve-sense organism perceives the rhythmic life connected with feeling. When we hear something musical, when we give ourselves over to a picture presented in tones, we quite obviously perceive through our senses. Those physiologists, however, who can observe in more subtle ways, notice that our breathing inwardly participates in the musical picture; how much our breathing has to do with what we experience; and how that musical picture appears as something to be aesthetically judged, something placed in the realm of art.

We need to be clear about the complicated process continuously going on within us. Let us look at our own organism. The nervesense organism is centralized in the human brain in such a way that the brain is in a firm state only to a small extent. The whole brain swims in cerebrospinal fluid. We can clearly understand what occurs by noticing that if our brain did not swim in cerebrospinal fluid, it would rest upon the blood vessels at the base of our skull and continuously exert pressure upon them. Because our brain does swim in cerebrospinal fluid, it is subject to continuous upward pressure — we know this from Archimedes’ principle — so that of the 1300–1500-gram weight of the brain, only about 20 grams press upon the base of the skull. The brain is subject to a significant pressure from below, so that it presses only a little upon the base of the skull. This cerebrospinal fluid participates in the entirety of our human experience no less than the firm part of the brain. The cerebrospinal fluid continually moves up and down. The fluid moves up and down rhythmically from the brain through the spinal column. Then it radiates out into the abdominal cavity, where inhalation forces it back into the cerebral cavity, from whence it flows back out with exhaling. Our cerebrospinal fluid moves up and down in a continuous process that extends throughout the remainder of the organism; a continuous vibrating movement essentially fills the whole human being and is connected with breathing.

When we hear a series of tones, we encounter them as breathing human beings. The cerebrospinal fluid is continuously moving up and down. When we listen to music, the inner rhythm of the liquid moving up and down encounters what occurs within our hearing organs as a result of the tones. Thus there is a continuous clash of the inner vibrating music of our breathing with what happens in the ear when listening to music. Our experience of music exists in the balance between our hearing and our rhythmic breathing. Someone who tries to connect our nerve processes directly with what occurs in our musical perception, which is filled with feeling, is on the wrong path. The nerve processes exist in musical perception only to connect it with what takes place deeper in our I, so that we can actually perceive the music and transform it into imagination.

I have attempted to follow these questions in all possible directions. There was a time when people in Europe were more interested in such questions. As you probably know, there was quite an argument about the understanding of beauty in music between Richard Wagner and his students and the Viennese musicologist Hanslick.2 There you can find the question of musical perception discussed in all possible nuances. You will also find mention of some experiments we can do to more fully comprehend musical perception. It is particularly in the perception of music that we can find the direct relationship between our circulatory processes and human feeling; at the same time there is a direct relationship between the nervous system and imagination or thinking. However, we find no direct relationship between the nerves and feeling or between the nerves and willing.

I am convinced that the incorrect hypotheses about sense and motor nerves that modern science has incorporated as a servant of materialism (and incorporated more strongly than we may think) have already taken over human thinking. In the next, or perhaps the following generation, it will become the general attitude. I am convinced that this materialistic theory about the nerves has already become the general mentality and that what we find today as theory in physiology or psychology has entered so deeply into our thinking that this attitude actually separates people. If you have the feeling — and many people do — that when we meet another human being, we make only sense impressions upon that person, and the other person upon us; that the other person is a closed entity with its own feeling life, separate from us; and that this person’s feelings can be transmitted only through her own nerves, we create a wall of separation between people. This wall leads to the most peculiar views. Today we hear people say that when they look at another human being, they see only that the other being has a nose in the middle of her face, or that she has two eyes in the same location where I know that I have two eyes. The other human being has a face formed just like my own. Thus, when I see all this, I draw an unconscious conclusion that there is an I just like my own in that organism. There are people today who accept that theory exactly and who understand the relationship between two human beings in such an external way that they think they must come to an unconscious conclusion based upon the form of the human being in order to determine that another human being has an I similar to their own. The perspective that connects the life of the nerves with our ability to creatively picture our thoughts, that connects our living circulation and respiration with feeling, and connects our entire metabolism with willing, will bring people together again once it becomes the general attitude, once it finally becomes actual experience. For now, I can only use a picture to describe this reunion.

We really would be separated in spirit and soul from one another if, when we met, all our feeling and willing developed within our nerves, enclosing us completely within our skin. Modern people have that feeling, and the increasingly antisocial condition prevalent in modern Europe is a true representative of that feeling.

There is, however, another possibility. We are all sitting together in this hall. We all breathe the same air; we cannot say that each of us is going around enclosed in our own box of air. We breathe the air together. If we limit our soul life to the nervous system, then we are isolated. Someone who, for example, connects breathing with the soul makes the soul into something we have in common. Just as we have the air in common, we also have our soul life in common when we reconnect it with the rhythmic organism. Even though in today’s society some people can purchase better things and others must purchase poorer things, a rich person still cannot get his food from the moon, from a different heavenly body, just so he won’t have to eat the same things as a poor person does.

Thus we have a commonality in our metabolism, and our willing takes on a commonality when we recognize the original and direct relationship of our will to our metabolism. You can see the endless effects of recognizing the connection of our feeling life with the rhythm within human nature when you also recognize that the rhythms of our being are connected to the external world. You can see the same thing in regard to our will when we recognize its connection with our metabolism. From this, you can see how well-equipped spiritual science is to understand matter and its processes. Materialism, on the other hand, is destined to not understand anything about matter.

Here you have a preliminary view of the three aspects of human life: the nerve-sense life, life in the rhythmic organism, and life in the metabolism. I will explain this in more detail later. In connection with the life of the soul, we have discussed only physical life. We can consider the simple division of our soul life into what people normally consider as its three aspects: thinking, feeling, and willing. However, we will not understand it well if we make that division, however justified, our primary viewpoint. As you probably know, many psychologists separate the life of the human soul into imagining, thinking, feeling, and willing. For an objective observer of human nature, however, it should become clear that this perspective cannot offer a good picture of soul life. Now there is a phenomenon, or rather a whole complex of phenomena, that is more characteristic of our soul life than these abstractions. To understand the life of our soul in a living way, it is better not to begin with thinking, feeling, and willing. If we instead concentrate on something that permeates our entire soul life, we can recognize it as a primary characteristic of our living soul. We can see that the soul lives alternately in sympathies and antipathies, in loves and hates. Normally we do not notice how the soul swings between loves and hates, between sympathies and antipathies. We do not notice it because we do not properly evaluate certain processes of the soul.

People make judgments, and these judgments are either positive or negative. I could say that a tree is green, and in doing so I connect the two ideas of “tree” and “green” in a positive way. I could say you did not visit me yesterday, and in doing that I connect two ideas or complexes of ideas in a negative way. Something of sympathy or antipathy forms the basis of such judgments in our souls. Positive judgments are always experienced with sympathy and negative judgments with antipathy. The accuracy of the judgment is not based upon sympathy or antipathy; rather the accuracy is experienced through sympathy or antipathy. We could also say that a third situation lies clearly between sympathy and antipathy. That is the situation when someone has to choose between the two. In our souls, we do not merely have sympathy and antipathy; we also clearly have alternation between the two, which is also a positive state. Though this is not as clearly differentiated as in the physical body, since we are dealing with a process and not with clearly defined organs, we can divide our soul life into sympathies, antipathies, and something in between.

We can see these different aspects much more clearly when we look at what is spiritual in the human being. Modern psychology just tosses this in with the soul. We will see that we can gain a genuinely flexible view of human nature only when we can keep these three aspects separate. The physical consists of the nerve-sense processes, the circulatory processes, and the metabolism. The soul aspect of the human being consists of experiencing antipathy, sympathy, and the alternation between those two.

The spiritual aspect of the human being also exists in three parts. When we want to understand the human being spiritually, we must in the first place take note of waking experience, which we all know as a state of spiritual life and which is a part of us from waking until sleeping. Another spiritual state, sleeping life, exists from the time we fall asleep until we awaken. Finally, we have a third state between those two, which we encounter at the moment of awakening, namely, dream life. Waking, dreaming, and sleeping are the three aspects of spiritual life. But we should not associate trivial ideas about these things with a genuine understanding of spiritual life. Instead we need to acquire a sense of how that sleeping spirit actually exists. We can speak of sleep as a state when a human being becomes motionless, when he or she no longer perceives sense impressions, and so forth. But we can also try to see things from a different perspective.

We can acquire some understanding of the meaning of sleep for our life by approaching it in the following way. When we look back upon our life, we usually believe that we are looking at an uninterrupted stream. We collect all our memories into a continuum. However, that is an error. You remember what happened to you today since you awoke, but before that there was a time when your consciousness was asleep. The period of sleep thus interrupts the stream of your memory. Daily life comes again and is then again followed by a period of sleep. What we carry in our consciousness as a uniform stream toward the past is actually always interrupted by periods of sleep. You can see this has a certain significance, even for consciousness. We could say that we are trained to perceive periods when something is missing in just the same way as periods that are filled, but we do not always make that clear to ourselves. If I were to draw a white area here on the board, so that I leave out black circles, you would look at the white area, but actually pay less attention to the white area than to where nothing is, that is, to the black circles. If we have a bottle of seltzer water, in a sense we do not see the water; what we mostly see is the little bubbles of carbon dioxide. We see what is not in the water. In the same way, when we look backward, we do not actually see our experiences. We overlook them much as we overlook the white area here on the board. We directly perceive something else, something that we must understand much more exactly. We realize this when we really try to understand the basis of our actual sense of I. I will discuss the reasons in later lectures, but slowly we come to realize that our perception of these periods of sleep gives us our sense of I. Thus we destroy our feeling of I when we do not properly sleep. The interruptions of sleep must be strewn in among our memories for us to achieve a proper sense of I. If you study those disturbances that can arise in your sense of I through an improper sleep life, you will be able to grasp the idea that an I-sense is based upon these holes in consciousness. Please note that I am not referring to the concept of I, but to the sensing of I.

It is not only what we could call the content of waking consciousness that lives in human beings. Sleep also directly affects what exists in the human being, perhaps to an even greater extent. Those who can genuinely observe human subjectivity will find that when they are accurately aware of the waking state, it is present only in thinking. It would be impossible for us to have the same level of wakefulness in our feeling. Feeling is not directly present in our consciousness in the same way as thinking is. In fact, feeling has the same relationship to our consciousness as dreaming. As strange as it may sound, those who can gain clarity about the differences between thinking and feeling as pure phenomena of consciousness will conclude that the same kind of experience occurs when we perceive our dreams as occurs in our feeling.

We also find the same kind of experience in willing that we find in the unconscious state of sleeping, in dreamless sleep. You need only consider for a moment that, when you raise your hand or your arm, you perceive the result of willing. The impulse of willing, that is, the direct spiritual impulse, is connected with the metabolism. You do not perceive the inner process that occurs between the will impulse and the metabolism any more than you consciously experience what occurs within you during dreamless sleep. The conscious experience of the actual processes of will and of dreamless sleep are equivalent. The processes of your feeling life and of dreaming are also the same. True wakefulness exists only in thinking. We do not sleep only between falling asleep and awakening; we also partially sleep when we are awake. We are awake only in regard to thinking, we dream in regard to feeling, and we sleep in regard to willing.

Now please do not assume that willing should remain unconscious. It is notalways unconscious. If I had here a white area with four black circles within it, then where there is nothing, where I left something out, I would perceive something just as I consciously perceive the left-out content, the content of the will that I sleep through in my normal waking life.

If we look at the human being in a more flexible way, we will see the inner activity of clearly separated aspects of three spiritual states. In thinking, the waking spirit is active; in feeling, it is the dreaming spirit, and in willing, the sleeping spirit. We need to be able to differentiate wakefulness and sleeping as more than alternating states in day and night. We need to be able to observe how these states interact in a human being who is awake.

This has an extremely practical implication for education. We need to ask how we can learn to understand the interactions between willing and thinking and how can we learn to best teach a child at the age of six or seven, when we especially need to take this interaction between thinking and willing into account. The answer is to learn to observe the interaction between willing and thinking in other phenomena, the ways it occurs in a concrete form, in a way we can see, namely, in waking and sleeping. If I study waking and sleeping, I will have something I can compare with thinking and willing.

We needed to discuss this at the beginning of this course because it is through spiritual science that our psychology first acquires some genuine content. If you pick up any modern psychology textbook, you will find definitions of willing and definitions of thinking, but they more or less remain mere definitions of words. We need to understand such things in a real way, but we can do that only if we can relate them to things that exist in the world, for example, to study them through the relationship of wakefulness to sleeping. That is something we will do, and in so doing we can also throw some light upon the relationship of thinking to willing. Thus we can penetrate the real world, and that is just what spiritual science tries to do.

Spiritual science does not consider spiritual life out of some purely subjective need, simply because it is nice for people who have nothing else to do, and who, rather than making small talk about some other subject, prefer to chat about the fact that human beings consist of a physical body, an etheric body, an astral body, and an I. Many people have such a superficial attitude. What is important in spiritual science is not to offer material for small talk. What spiritual science can contribute to our understanding of the spirit is, in fact, necessary to illuminate human life so that we can work with it as a practical reality, something we have forgotten how to do. The chaos we now find in Europe, the absurd events of the last five or six years, is the result of that forgetfulness. There is a direct connection between our collective denial of the real content of the world and the distress within our civilization. Those who believe we can keep our old attitudes make a serious error. We are working with the adults of the future, and we must think first and foremost about the future of humanity. It is particularly here, in the area of education, that we should first think about those forces that enable us to give something to the future generation that is more than what we received, and which has brought about the terrible conditions of our society. In this way we open our eyes beyond the somewhat confined realm of education, as wholesome as it may be, onto the entire development of humanity.