Donate books to help fund our work. Learn more→

The Rudolf Steiner Archive

a project of Steiner Online Library, a public charity

Karmic Relationships I
GA 235

Lecture V

1 March 1924, Dornach

Speaking in detail about karma, we must of course distinguish between those karmic events of life which come to a man more from outside, and those which arise, as it were, from within. A human being's destiny is composed of many and diverse factors. To begin with, it depends on his physical and etheric constitution. Then it depends on the sympathies and antipathies with which he is able to meet the outer world, according to his astral and his Ego-constitution; and on the sympathies and antipathies with which others in their turn are able to encounter him according to his nature. Moreover, it depends on the myriad complications and entanglements in which he finds himself involved on the path of life. All these things work together to determine—for a given moment, or for his life as a whole—the human being's karmic situation.

I shall now try to show how the total destiny of man is put together from these several factors. Today we shall take our start from certain inner factors in his nature. Let us observe, for once, what is in many respects of cardinal importance. I mean, his predisposition to health and illness; and, with this underlying basis, all that comes to expression in his life, in the physical strength—and strength of soul—with which he is able to confront his tasks, and so on ...

To judge these factors rightly, we must however be able to see beyond many a prejudice that is contained in the civilisation of today. We must be able to enter more into the true original being of man; we must gain insight, what it really signifies to say that man, as to his deeper being, descends from spiritual worlds into this physical and earthly life.

All that people refer to nowadays as heredity, has even found its way, as you are well aware, into the realms of poetry and art. If any one appears in the world with such and such qualities, people will always begin by asking how he inherited them. If, for example, he appears with a predisposition to illness, they will at once ask, what of the hereditary circumstances?

To begin with, the question is quite justifiable; but in their whole attitude to these things nowadays, people look past the real human being; they completely miss him. They do not observe what his true being is, how his true being unfolds. In the first place, they say, he is the child of his parents and the descendant of his forebears. Already in his physiognomy, and even more perhaps in his gestures, they fondly recognise a likeness to his ancestors emerging. Not only so; they see his whole physical organism as a product of what is given to him by his forefathers. He carries this physical organism with him. They emphasise this very strongly, but they fail to observe the following:

When he is born, to begin with undoubtedly man has his physical organism from his parents. But what is the physical organism which he receives from his parents? The thoughts of the civilisation of today upon this question are fundamentally in error. For in effect, when he is at the change of teeth, man not only exchanges the teeth he first received, for others, but this is also the moment in life when the entire human being—as organisation—is for the first time renewed. There is a thorough-going difference as between what the human being becomes in his eighth or ninth year of life, and what he was in his third or fourth year. It is a thorough-going difference. That which he was—as organisation—in his third or fourth year, that he undoubtedly received by heredity. His parents gave it to him. That which emerges first in the eighth or ninth year of his life is in the highest degree a product of what he himself has brought down from spiritual worlds.

To picture the real underlying facts, we may put it as follows—though I am well aware it will shock the man of today. Man, we must say, when he is born, receives something like a model of his human form. He gets this model from his forefathers; they give him the model to take with him into life. Then, working on the model, he himself develops what he afterwards becomes. What he develops, however, is the outcome of what he himself brings with him from the spiritual world.

Fantastic as it may seem to the man of today—to those who are completely immersed in modern culture—yet it is so. The first teeth which the human being receives are undoubtedly inherited; they are the products of heredity. They only serve him as the model, after which he elaborates his second teeth, and this he does according to the forces he brings with him from the spiritual world. Thus he elaborates his second teeth. And as it is with the teeth, so with the body as a whole.

A question may here arise: Why do we human beings need a model at all? Why can we not do as indeed we did in earlier phases of earth-evolution? Just as we descend and gather in our ether-body (which, as you know, we do with our own forces, and bring it with us from the spiritual world), why can we not likewise gather to ourselves the physical materials and form our own physical body without the help of physical inheritance?

For the modern man's way of thinking, it is no doubt an grotesquely foolish question—mad, I need hardly say. But with respect to madness—let us admit it—the Theory of Relativity holds good. To begin with, people only apply the Theory to movements. They say you cannot tell, from observation, whether you yourself—with the body on which you are—are moving, or whether it is the neighbouring body that is moving. This fact emerged very clearly when the old cosmic theory was exchanged for the Copernican. Though, as I said, they apply the Theory of Relativity only to movements, yet we may also apply it (for it certainly has its sphere of validity) to the aforesaid ‘madness.’ Here are two people, standing side by side: each one is mad as compared to the other ... The question only remains, which of the two is absolutely mad?

In relation to the real facts of the spiritual world, this question must none the less be raised: Why does the human being need a model? Ancient world-conceptions answered it in their way. Only in modern time, when morality is no longer included in the cosmic order but only recognised as human convention, these questions therefore are no longer asked. Ancient world-conceptions not only asked the question; they also answered it. Originally, they said, man was pre-destined to come to the earth in such a way that he could form his own physical body from the substances of earth, just as he gathers to himself his ether-body from the cosmic ether-substance. But he then fell a prey to the Luciferic and Ahrimanic influences, and he thereby lost the faculty, out of his own nature to build his physical body. Therefore he must take it from heredity. This way of obtaining the physical body is the result of inherited sin.

This is what ancient world-conceptions said—that this is the fundamental meaning of “inherited sin.” It signifies the having to enter into the laws and conditions of heredity.

We in our time must first discover and collect the necessary concepts so as to take these questions sincerely, in the first place; and in the second place, to find the answers. It is quite true: man in his earthly evolution has not remained as strong as he was pre-disposed to be before the onset of the Luciferic and Ahrimanic influences. Therefore he cannot form his physical body of his own accord when he comes down into the earthly conditions. He is dependent on the model, he needs the model which we see growing in the first seven years of human life. And, as he takes his direction from the model, it is but natural if more or less of the model also remains about him in his later life. If, in his working on himself, he is altogether dependent on the model, then he forgets—if I may put it so—what he himself brought with him. He takes his cue entirely from the model. Another human being, having stronger inner forces as a result of former lives on earth, takes his direction less from the model; and you will see how greatly such a human being changes in the second phase of life, between the change of teeth and puberty.

This is precisely the task of school. If it is a true school, it should bring to unfoldment in the human being what he has brought with him from spiritual worlds into this physical life on earth.

Thus, what the human being afterwards takes with him into life will contain more or less of inherited characteristics, according to the extent to which he can or cannot overcome them.

Now all things have their spiritual aspect. The body man has in the first seven years of life is simply the model from which he takes his direction. Either his spiritual forces are to some extent submerged in what is pressed upon him by the model; then he remains quite dependent on the model. Or else, in the first seven years, that which is striving to change the model works its way through successfully.

This striving also finds expression outwardly. It is not merely a question of man's working on the model. While he is doing so, the original model gradually loosens itself, peels off, so to speak—falls away. It all falls away, just as the first teeth fall away. Throughout this process, the forms and forces of the model are pressing on the one hand, while on the other hand the human being is trying to impress what he himself has brought with him to the earth ... There is a real conflict in the first seven years of life. Seen from the spiritual standpoint, this conflict is signified by that which finds expression—outwardly, symptomatically—in the illnesses of childhood. The typical diseases of childhood are an expression of this inward struggle.

Needless to say, similar forms of illness often occur later in life. In such a case—to take only one example—it may be that the patient did not succeed very well in overcoming the model in the first seven years of life. And at a later age an inner impulse arises, after all to rid himself of what has thus karmically remained in him. Thus in the 28th or 29th year of life, a human being may suddenly feel inwardly roused, all the more vigorously to beat against the model, and as a result, he or she will get some illness of childhood.

If you have an eye for it, you will soon see how remarkable it is in some children—how greatly they change in physiognomy or gesture after the 7th or 8th year of their life. Nobody knows where the change comes from. The prevailing views of heredity are so strong nowadays that they have passed into the everyday forms of speech. When, in the 8th or 9th year, some feature suddenly emerges in the child (which, in real fact, is deeply, organically rooted) the father will often say: “Anyhow, he hasn't got it from me.” To which the mother will answer: “Well, certainly not from me.” All this is only due to the prevailing belief which has found its way into the parental consciousness—I mean of course, the belief that the children must have got everything from their parents.

On the other hand, you may often observe how children grow even more like their parents in this second phase of life than they were before. That is quite true. But we must take in earnest what we know of the way man descends into the physical world.

Among the many dreadful flowers of the swamp which psycho-analysis has produced, there is the theory of which you can read on all hands nowadays, namely that in the hidden sub-conscious mind every son is in love with his mother and every daughter with her father; and they tell of the many conflicts of life which are supposed to arise from this, in the sub-conscious regions of the soul. All these are of course amateurish interpretations of life. The truth however is, that the human being is in love with his parents already before he comes down into earthly life. He comes down just because he likes them.

Of course, the judgment of life which people have on earth must differ in this respect from the judgment they have outside the earthly life between death and a new birth. On one occasion, in the early stages of our anthroposophical work, a lady appeared among us who said: “No,” when she heard of reincarnation. She liked the rest of Anthroposophy very well, but with reincarnation she would have nothing to do; one earthly life, she said, was quite enough for her. Now we had very well-meaning followers in those days, and they tried in every imaginable way to convince the good lady that the idea was true after all, that every human being must undergo repeated lives on earth. She could not be moved. One friend belaboured her from the left, and another from the right. After a time, she left; but two days later, she wrote me a post-card to the effect that, after all, she was not going to be born again on earth!

To such a person, one who wishes simply to tell the truth from spiritual knowledge can only say: No doubt, while you are here on earth, it is not at all to your liking that you should come down again for a future life. But it does not depend on that. Here on earth, to begin with, you will go through the gate of death into the spiritual world. That you are quite willing to do. Whether or no you want to come down again will depend on the judgment which will be yours when you no longer have the body about you. For you will then form quite a different judgment.

The judgments man has in physical life on earth are, in fact, different from the judgments he has between death and a new birth. For there the point of view is changed. And so it is, if you say to a human being here on earth—a young human being, perhaps-that he has chosen his father, it is not out of the question that he might make objection: “Do you mean to say that I have chosen the father who has given me so many thrashings?” Yes, certainly he has chosen him; for he had quite another point of view before he came down to earth. He had the point of view that the thrashings would do him a lot of good ... Truly, it is no laughing matter; I mean it in deep earnestness.

In the same way, man also chooses his parents as to form and figure. He himself has a picture before him—the picture that he will become like them. He does not become like them by heredity, but by his own inner forces of soul-and-spirit—the forces he brings with him from the spiritual world. Therefore you need to judge in an all-round way out of both spiritual and physical science. If you do so, it will become utterly impossible to judge as people do when they say, with the air of making an objection: “I have seen children who became all the more like their parents in their second phase of life.” No doubt; but then the fact is, that these children themselves have set themselves the ideal of taking on the form of their parents.

Man really works, throughout the time between death and a new birth, in union with other departed souls, and with the beings of the Higher Worlds; he works upon what will then make it possible for him to build his body.

You see, we very much under-estimate the importance of what man has in his sub-consciousness. As earthly man, he is far wiser in the sub-conscious than in the surface-consciousness. It is indeed out of a far reaching, universal, cosmic wisdom that he elaborates within the model that afterwards emerges in the second phase of life—what he then bears as his own human being, the human form that properly belongs to him. In time to come, people will know how little they really receive—as far as the substance of the body is concerned—from the food they eat. Man receives far more from the air and the light, from all that he absorbs in a very finely-divided state from air and light, and so on. When this is realised, people will more readily believe that man builds up his second body quite independently of any inherited conditions. For he builds it entirely from his world-environment. The first body is actually only a model and that which comes from the parents—not only substantially, but as regards the outer bodily forces—is no longer there in the second period of life. The child's relation to his parents then becomes an ethical, a soul-relationship. Only in the first period of life—that is until the seventh year—is it a physical, hereditary relationship.

Now there are human beings who, in this earthly life, take a keen interest in all that surrounds them in the visible cosmos. They observe the world of plants, of animals; they take interest in this thing and that in the visible world around them. They take an interest in the majestic picture of the starlit sky. They are awake, so to speak, with their soul, in the entire physical cosmos. The inner life of a human being who has this warm interest in the cosmos differs from the inner life of one who goes past the world with a phlegmatic, indifferent soul.

In this respect, the whole scale of human characters is represented. There, for example, is a man who has been quite a short journey. When you afterwards talk to him, he will describe with infinite love the town where he has been, down to the tiniest detail. Through his keen interest, you yourself will get a complete picture of what it was like in the town he visited.

From this extreme we can pass to the opposite. On one occasion, for instance, I met two elderly ladies; they had just traveled from Vienna to Presburg, which is a beautiful city. I asked them what it was like in Presburg, what had pleased them there. They could tell me nothing except that they had seen two pretty little dachshunds down by the river-side! Well, they need not have gone to Presburg to see the dachshunds; they might just as well have seen them in Vienna. However, they had seen nothing else at all.

So do some people go through the world. And, as you know between these outermost ends of the scale, there are those who take every kind and degree of interest in the physical world around them.

Suppose a man has little interest in the physical world around him. Perhaps he just manages to interest himself in the things that immediately concern his bodily life—whether, for instance, one can eat more or less well in this or that district. Beyond that, his interests do not go; his soul remains poor. He does not imprint the world into himself. He carries very little in his inner life, very little of what has radiated into him from the phenomena of the world, through the gate of death into the spiritual realms. Thereby he finds the working with the spiritual beings, with whom he is then together, very difficult. And as a consequence, in the next life he does not bring with him, for the up-building of his physical body, strength and energy of soul, but weakness—a kind of faintness of soul. The model works into him strongly enough. The conflict with the model finds expression in manifold illnesses of childhood; but the weakness persists. He forms, so to speak, a frail or sickly body, prone to all manner of illnesses. Thus, karmically, our interest of soul-and-spirit in the one earthly life is transformed into our constitution as to health in the next life. Human beings who are “bursting with health” certainly had a keen interest in the visible world in a former incarnation. The detailed facts of life work very strongly in this respect.

No doubt it is more or less “risqué” nowadays to speak of these things, but you will only understand the inner connections of karma if you are ready to learn about the karmic details. Thus, for example, in the age when the human souls who are here today were living in a former life on earth, there was already an art of painting; and there were some human beings even then who had no interest in it at all. Even today, you will admit, there are people who do not care whether they have some atrocity hanging on the walls of their room or a picture beautifully painted. And there were also such people in the time when the souls who are here today were living in their former lives on earth. Now, I can assure you, I have never found a man or a woman with a pleasant face—a sympathetic expression—who did not take delight in beautiful paintings in a former life on earth. The people with an unsympathetic expression (which, after all, also plays its part in karma, and signifies something for destiny) were always the ones who passed by the works of art of painting with obtuse and phlegmatic indifference.

These things go even farther. There are human beings (and so there were in former epochs of the earth) who never look up to the stars their whole life long, who do not know where Leo is, or Aries or Taurus; they have no interest in anything in this connection. Such people are born, in a next life on earth, with a body that is somehow limp and flabby. Or if, by the vigour of their parents, they get a model that carries them over this, they become limp, lacking in energy and vigour, through the body which they then build for themselves.

And so it is with the entire constitution which a man bears with him in a given life on earth. In every detail we might refer it to the interests he had in the visible world—in an all-embracing sense—in his preceding life on earth.

People, for instance, who in our time take absolutely no interest in music—people to whom music is a matter of indifference—will certainly be born again in a next life on earth either with asthmatic trouble, or with some disease of the lung. At any rate, they will be born with a tendency to asthma or lung disease. And so it is in all respects; the quality of soul which develops in our earthly life through the interest we take in the visible world, comes to expression in our next life in the general tone of our bodily health or illness.

Here again, some one might say: To know of such things may well take away one's taste for a next life on earth. That again, is judged from the earthly standpoint, which is certainly not the only possible standpoint; for, after all, the life between death and a new birth lasts far longer than the earthly life. If a man is obtuse and indifferent with regard to anything in his visible environment, he takes with him an inability to work in certain realms between death and a new birth. He passes through the gate of death with the consequences of his lack of interest. After death he goes on his way. He cannot get near certain Beings; certain Beings hold themselves away from him; he cannot get near them. Other human souls with whom he was on earth, remain as strangers to him. This would go on for ever, like an eternal punishment of Hell, if it could not be modified. The only cure, the only compensation, lies in his resolving—between death and a new birth—to come down again into earthly life and experience in the sick body what his inability has signified in the spiritual world. Between death and a new birth he longs for this cure, for he is then filled with the consciousness that there is something he cannot do. Moreover, he feels it in such a way that in the further course, when he dies once again and passes through the time between death and new birth, that which was pain on earth becomes the impulse and power to enter into what he missed last time.

Thus we may truly say: in all essentials, man carries health and illness with him with his karma, from the spiritual world into the physical. Of course we must bear in mind that it is not always a fulfilment of karma, for there is also karma in process of becoming. Therefore we shall not relate to his former life on earth, everything the human being has to suffer in his physical life as regards health and illness. None the less we may know: in all essentials, that which emerges—notably from within outward—with respect to health and illness, is karmically determined as I have just described.

Here again, the world becomes intelligible only when we can look beyond this earthly life. In no other way can we explain it; the world cannot be explained out of the earthly life.

If we now pass from the inner conditions of karma which follow from a man's organisation, to the more outward aspect, here once again—only to strike the chords of karma, so to speak—we may take our start from a realm of facts which touches man very closely. Take, for example, our relation to other human beings, which is psychologically very much connected with the conditions of our health and illness, at any rate as regards the general mood and attunement of our soul.

Assume, for example, that someone finds a close friend in his youth. An intimate friendship arises between them; the two are devoted to one another. Afterwards life takes them apart—both of them, perhaps, or one especially—they look back with a certain sadness on their friendship in youth. But they cannot renew it. However often they meet in life, their friendship of youth does not arise again. How very much in destiny can sometimes depend on broken friendships of youth. You will admit, after all, a person's destiny can be profoundly influenced by a broken friendship of youth.

Now one investigates the matter ... I may add that one should speak as little as possible about these things out of mere theory. To speak out of theory is of very little value. In fact, you should only speak of such things either out of direct spiritual perception, or on the basis of what you have heard or read of the communications of those who are able to have direct spiritual vision, provided you yourselves find the communications convincing, and understand them well. There is no value in theorising about these things. Therefore I say, when you endeavour with spiritual vision to get behind such an event as a broken friendship of youth, as you go back into a former life on earth, this is what you generally find. The two people, who in a subsequent earthly life, had a friendship in their youth which was afterwards broken—in an earlier incarnation they were friends in later life.

Let us assume, for instance: two young people—boys or girls—are friends until their twentieth year. Then the friendship of their youth is broken. Go back with spiritual cognition into a former life on earth, and you will find that again they were friends. This time, however, it was a friendship that began about the twentieth year and continued into their later life. It is a very interesting case, and you will often find it so when you pursue things with spiritual science.

Examine such cases more closely and to begin with, this is what you find: If you enjoyed a friendship with a person in the later years of life, you have an inner impulse also to learn to know what he may be like in youth. The impulse leads you in a later life actually to learn to know him as a friend in youth. In a former incarnation you knew him in maturer years. This brought the impulse into your soul to learn to know him now also in youth. You could no longer do so in that life, therefore you do it in the next.

It has a great influence when this impulse arises—in one of the two or in both of them—and passes through death and lives itself out in the spiritual world between death and a new birth. For in the spiritual world, in such a case, there is something like a “staring fixedly” at the period of youth. You have an especial longing to fix your gaze on the time of youth, and you do not develop the impulse to learn to know your friend once more in maturer years. And so, in your next life on earth, the friendship of youth—pre-determined between you by the life you lived through before you came down to earth—is broken.

This is a case out of real life, for what I am now relating is absolutely real. One question, however, here arises: What was the older friendship like in the former life, what was it like, that rouses the impulse in you to have your friend with you only in youth in a new life on earth? The answer is this: for the desire to have the other being beside you in your youth and yet not to develop into a desire to keep him as your intimate friend in later life as well, something else must also have occurred. In all the instances of which I am aware, it has invariably been so: If the two human beings had remained united in their later life, if their friendship of youth had not been broken they would have grown tired and bored with one another: because, in effect, their friendship in maturer years in a former life took a too selfish direction. The selfishness of friendships in one earthly life avenges itself karmically in the loss of the same friendships in other lives.

These things are complicated indeed; but you can always get a guiding line if you see this, for it is so in many cases: Two human beings go their way, each of them apart, say, till their twentieth year; thenceforward they go along in friendship (I). Then in the next earthly life, correspondingly, we generally get this second picture (II)—the picture of friendship in youth, after which their lives go apart.

This too you will find very often: If, in your middle period of life in one incarnation, you meet a human being who has a strong influence on your destiny (these things, of course, only hold good as a general rule—not in all cases), it is very likely that you had him beside you by forces of destiny at the beginning and at the end of your life in a previous incarnation. Then the picture is so: In the one incarnation you live through the beginning and ending of life together; in the other incarnation you are not with him at the beginning or at the end, but you encounter him in the middle period of life.

Or again it may be that in your childhood you are united by destiny with another human being; in a former life you were united with him precisely in the time before you approached your death. Such inverse reflections often occur in the relationships of karma.