Man and Woman in Light of Spiritual Science
In this Lecture, Rudolf Steiner reminds us to look beyond immediately sense-perceptible definitions of man and woman to the levels of polarity which are at work within these outer “garments,” to look behind our male and female physical bodies for the interacting of masculine and feminine elements within the whole human being.
Lecture 11 of 15 from the lecture series: Perception of the Soul and of the Spirit. Published in German as: Die Erkenntnis der Seele und des Geistes. Published in The Anthroposophical Review, Vol. 2 No. 1 (1980). GA# 56.
18 March 1908, Munich
Translated by Bernard Jarman
Anthroposophical science does not exist in order that human beings be estranged from life through some kind of mysticism. It should in no way divert people from their tasks in daily life or the present. On the contrary, spiritual science should bring strength, energy and open mindedness to humanity so that people can meet what daily life and our times demand. Hence it follows that spiritual science must not concern itself solely with the great riddles of existence, of the nature of human existence and the meaning of the world, but must also seek to cast light on those questions which confront us directly. Therefore in these lectures we shall deal throughout with what are commonly called questions of our time.
But whoever would speak out of spiritual science on such contemporary issues finds himself in a special position, for he raises the expectation that he will directly enter these current debates. And this expectation arises very easily with the questions of man and woman, or man, woman and child. Yet precisely because the spiritual researcher must consider these questions from a higher vantage point, his observations seem to lead away from the outlook and opinions arising in conventional discussions. Although spiritual science must indeed look at these questions from a higher perspective, it is precisely spiritual science which is able to work most practically on these issues. For while it is of the nature of spiritual scientific observation that such questions are raised into their eternal context, at the same time such observation makes visible practical solutions to concrete problems (unlike party programmes, slogans and the like which prove to be unworkable in practice). This must always be remembered when considering the relationship of man and woman from a higher vantage point. Many of the things to be said will sound quite strange. But if you penetrate deeper into them you will discover that spiritual science can offer a far more thorough answer to questions of practical life than can be found in other quarters.
Spiritual science takes its start from the knowledge that behind all that is sense perceptible stands a soul-spiritual nature. Only when we turn our gaze towards the spiritual lying behind the sense world, will the questions with which we wish to concern ourselves appear in their right light. And so we must ask ourselves: What is the spiritual nature of the two sexes? We shall then see that the truths revealed by spiritual science are already sensed by many today, even by those of a materialistic world outlook. But as these inklings are only based on a materialistic conception they often appear as illusory.
What then does materialism have to say about the nature of the sexes? We may best orientate ourselves towards this question by considering that women have for some time sought to approach the time in human evolution when both sexes shall attain full equality. In so far as women have stepped into the struggle for their rights, it is important for us to learn what materialism has to say about female nature. Then we will find a point of reference on how the modern world thinks about this question. One could quote the most varying ideas on female nature such as they appear in the book A Survey of the Woman Problem (Zur Kritik der Weiblichkeit) by Rosa Mayreder. It is indeed very good to seek the opinions of leading personalities of the day on issues of this kind.
A very noteworthy scientist of the nineteenth century described the basic quality of woman to be humility. Another whose comment is equally valid declared it to be an angry disposition. Another scientist who sparked off much controversy came to the conclusion that female nature is basically submissive, while yet another felt it consisted of the desire to dominate. One described women as conservative, still another felt women to be the true revolutionary element in the world. And yet another said that the ability to analyse was well developed in women, as opposed to others who believed that women lack this quality entirely and have only developed the capacity for synthesis.
This quaint collection could be extended indefinitely, though in the end one would only learn that through looking at things on a purely external level, intelligent people are led to opposite conclusions. Those who wish to enter into the thing more deeply must ask whether perhaps these observers are starting from false premises. One cannot merely look at externalities, rather one must consider the whole being of the human being. An inkling of the truth dawned in many researchers through the facts themselves. However this was submerged by materialistic thought. For example a young man, Otto Weininger, wrote a book entitled Sex and Character. Otto Weininger was a man with great potential which, however, he was unable to develop because the full weight of materialism rested heavily on his soul. He was of the opinion that the individual human being can be seen neither as entirely masculine nor feminine but rather that the masculine is mixed together with the feminine and vice versa. This embryo of an idea dawned in the soul of Weininger but was stultified by the prevailing materialism. Thus Weininger imagined there to be a mixing and material interaction of the masculine and feminine principles such that in every man a hidden woman and in every woman a hidden man is to be found. But out of this, some strange conclusions came to him. Weininger said for example that the woman possesses no ego, individuality, character, or personality, no freedom and so on. As his theory was concerned only with a purely material, quantitative mixing of male and female properties, it followed that the man possesses all of these things. These, however came to nothing in him because of his other male qualities. Thus if we enter into this logically we soon discover a theory which destroys itself. Yet as we shall see, there is some truth in it.
I have emphasised again and again that it is not as easy to understand the human being out of spiritual science as it is out of a materialistically orientated science. For that which we perceive as the sense-perceptible human being, is for spiritual science only one member of the whole being, namely the physical body. Beyond that, however, spiritual science distinguishes the etheric body which the human has in common with animals and plants. As a third member of the human being it characterises the astral or soul body as that which lives in our feelings and sensations and is the bearer of our joys and sorrows. This member we have in common with the animal world. And as the fourth member spiritual science recognises that which makes human beings human and conscious of themselves — the ego. Spiritual science thus describes the human being as possessing four members.
At present we will concern ourselves with the physical and etheric bodies. For herein lies the solution to the riddle of the sexes. The etheric body is only to a certain extent a picture of the physical body. In regard to the sexes things are different. In the man the etheric body is female and in the woman it is male. However strange it may seem, a deeper observation will disclose the following: Something of the opposite sex lies hidden in each person. It is no good however to look for all kinds of abnormal phenomena, rather one needs to pay attention to normal experiences. By confronting this fact, it is no longer possible in the strict sense to speak of man and woman, but rather of masculine and feminine qualities. Certain qualities in the woman work more outwardly while others are more inward. The woman has masculine qualities within herself and the man feminine qualities. For example a man becomes a warrior through the outer courage of his bodily nature, a woman possesses an inner courage, the courage of sacrifice and devotion. The man brings his creative activity to bear on external life. The woman works with devoted receptivity into the world. Countless phenomena of life will become clear to us if we think of human nature as the working together of two polar opposites. In the man the masculine pole works outwards and the feminine lives more inwardly, while in the woman the opposite holds true.
Spiritual science however also shows us a deeper reason why a masculine quality is to be found in the woman and a feminine in the man. Spiritual science speaks of how human beings strive after ever greater perfection, through many lives. Our present life is always the result of a previous one. Thus as we proceed through many lives, we experience both male and female incarnations. What arises in this way may be expressed as the effect of those experiences gathered on both sides in earthly life.
Whoever is able in this way to look more deeply into the male and female natures knows that the more intimate experiences of the two sexes are very different, and must be very different. Our entire earth existence is a collection of the most varied experiences. However, these experiences can only become comprehensive through their being acquired from the viewpoint of both sexes. Hence we can see that even if we only consider the human being with regard to the two lower members, we see in reality a being with two sides. So long as one merely looks at the physical body little can be understood. The spiritual lying behind must also be recognised. Through his masculine nature the inner femininity of the man appears, and through the woman's feminine nature her inner masculinity appears. Now one can grasp why it is that so many misjudgments have been made about this question; it depends on whether one looks at the inner, or the outer aspects. In considering only one side of the human being, one is subjected entirely to chance. If, for example, one researcher finds that the main quality of the woman is humility and another that it is an angry disposition, it simply means that both have observed only one side of the same being. Error must occur with this kind of approach. In order to recognise the full truth we must look at the whole human being.
Something else must also be taken into account in order to gain knowledge of the whole truth. We must observe the human being in alternating sleeping and waking states. During sleep the astral body and the ego are raised out of the physical-etheric organism of the human being. On falling asleep one loses one's day consciousness; one enters into a different state of consciousness — a sleep consciousness. The perceptions and experiences which are made by the ego and astral body during sleep in the spiritual world remain hidden to our usual consciousness. In the present evolutionary state the human being is organised in such a way that the ego and astral bodies must make use of the physical sense organs in order to become aware of the physical world. That we see, hear, taste, and so on with our physical organs of sense is an idea widely held today. A thinker like Fichte however, would say: The ear does not hear — I hear. The ego, the human being's true inner being, is therefore the starting point for all our sense perceptions. And each morning when we awaken, the ego and astral body experience new knowledge of the physical world through the sense organs. It is different during sleep, for the ego and astral body spend their time in the spiritual world. The human being has sense organs in the astral body which enable perception in the astral world, but these have normally not been developed. Those who are unable to accept this as a possibility must be more consequent and say that in reality human beings die every evening. But human beings do find themselves in the spiritual world at night.
Further than this, the spiritual and physical worlds have a unique relationship to one another, for everything physical is only a very dense form of the spiritual. In the same way as ice is densified water, so are the physical and etheric bodies a densification of the astral body. Present day materialism will find it very hard to admit that the spirit creates everything material. It is, however, the tragedy of materialism that it understands the nature of matter least of all. One arrives at some very strange conclusions if one denies that matter is a condensed form of the spiritual. Naturally if one stays with popular concepts, most people will not immediately recognise anything less than pure reason in such a sentence as the following: The body is the foundation for our true soul nature; all so called spiritual things can be guided through that which is bodily. It becomes much clearer, however, if one takes it to its logical conclusion, as is done for instance in that pragmatism which comes from America. One single sentence will easily show how this theory speaks pure nonsense to the human mind. Thus it declares that man does not cry because he is sad, but rather is sad because he cries. That a soul mood might have an effect on the physical is not deemed possible, instead one believes that some outside event causes the tears to run which then makes the person sad. This is the consequence of materialism carried to its logical absurdity.
Spiritual science knows that the two higher members of the human being, the ego and the astral body leave during the night while the physical and etheric bodies remain behind. Thus it follows that during sleep the human being leaves behind male and female aspects and lives as a sexually undifferentiated being in the spiritual world. Everyone's life is thus divided between a sexual and an asexual experience.
Do the sexes then have no meaning in the spiritual world? Does the polarity of physical and etheric body which makes the two sexes manifest here on earth, find no echo in the higher worlds? Certainly we do not take our sexual nature with us into higher worlds; however, the origin of the two sexes is to be found in the astral sphere. In the same way as ice is formed from water, that which meets us in the physical world as masculine and feminine is formed out of the polarity of higher principles. We can approach this best if we consider it as the polarity of life and form. This polarity is also expressed in nature. We can see budding life in the tree and at the same time that which builds up hard forms, slows down growth and transforms it into the solid trunk. Life and form must work together in everything that lives. And if we look at the nature of the sexes from this standpoint we can say: That which corresponds to the life principle is the masculine, while that which brings life into a certain form expresses itself in the feminine. That which an artist creates in the way of form in marble, for example, is not to be found in outer nature. Only the artist's inner being, which is rooted in the spiritual world and finds its nourishment there, can be artistically creative. Indeed the reality is that the forces and beings of the spiritual world are continually streaming into the astral body and ego of the human being. And that which the artist creates as an imprint on matter is a memory of something with which he has been stimulated in the spiritual world. Were the human being unable to return to a spiritual homeland during sleep, it would not be possible to carry into physical existence the seeds needed to initiate great and noble deeds. Therefore nothing could be worse for the human being than prolonged loss of sleep.
That which the artist has drawn from the spiritual world and has built unconsciously into his work then appears as life and form. One might ask why it is that the “Juno Ludovisi” appears so wonderful to us. There is the large face, the wide forehead, the unusual nose. If we try and feel our way into this picture we would come to experience how impossible it is to think away the spiritual; soul and spirit are to be found in the very form of this face. This form could stay like this forever. The inner life has become entirely form, is fixed in form; soul and spirit have become form. But then we look up at the head of Zeus. Soul and spirit are present in this rather narrow forehead too, but one has the feeling that this form could change at any moment. Out of a deep inspiration the artist has been able to hold on to life and form in all reality.
But just as the artist is able to mould life and form into his great works, so is our whole being in reality life and form. This in itself shows that human nature is of spiritual origin and is created out of life, out of the continuous process of life and that which gives it permanence. The human being experiences life and death as the expression of this higher polarity of existence. It is in this sense that Goethe could say: “Death is the means by which nature can create more life.” Thus life finds a form not for one-sided life, nor one-sided death, but for a higher harmonious whole which can be created through life and death together. On this basis spiritual and physical can work together through the medium of masculine and feminine; the eternally developing life in the masculine, and life held in form in the feminine principle.
When investigating the nature of the sexes we have not begun with a one-sided observation of physical existence but rather have sought an answer on the spiritual level of existence. The harmony above the sexes can only be found in so far as the two sexes raise themselves to that level. If, therefore, by making use of the knowledge to be gained from spiritual science we could enable the reality beyond the sexes to take effect in practical life, the problem of the sexes would be solved. This does not lead away from life however. For that which meets us in the two phenomena of human nature can best be clarified by consciously striving for this higher harmony. In this way the question of the sexes will be deepened and the polarities will be harmonised. Everything in the nature of the sexes attains a very different form and meaning. We cannot solve this question through dogma, rather we must seek a common ground, and find perceptions and feelings which lead beyond the sexes.
These observations have shown, as is found again and again, that we must distinguish between the reality of the senses and the nature of being itself. If we want to solve the riddles of life, we must observe the whole human being from the world of the senses and from the world of the spirit. It can be seen that beyond the sense-perceptible polarity, man and woman are only garments, sheaths which hide the true nature of the human being. We must search behind the garments, for there is the spirit. We must not merely consider the outer side of the spirit, we must enter into the spirit itself.
We could also express it in this way: Love saturated with wisdom or wisdom penetrated with love is the highest goal. “The eternal feminine draws us forward.”1The closing lines of Goethe's Faust. The feminine is that element in the world which strives outward in order to be fructified by the eternal elements of life.