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Metamorphoses of the Soul II
GA 59

II. Laughing and Weeping

3 February 1910, Berlin

In a series of lectures on spiritual science, our subject today might well appear insignificant. But considerations which lead into the higher realms of being are often at fault in leaving aside the details of life and its immediate, everyday realities. When lectures set out to deal with eternal life, with the highest qualities of the soul or with great questions concerning the evolution of world and man, people generally are pleased, and well content to leave alone such apparently commonplace matters as those we are to examine today. But everyone who follows the path indicated here for penetrating into the spiritual worlds, will be convinced that to advance quietly, step by step, from the well known to the less known, is a very healthy way.

Moreover, we can draw on many examples to show that eminent men have by no means regarded laughter and tears as merely commonplace. After all, the consciousness which is achieved in the legends and the great traditions of mankind—so often much wiser than the individual human consciousness—has endowed the great Zarathustra, who became so immensely important for Eastern culture, with the famous “Zarathustra smile”, for this consciousness it was particularly significant that this great spirit came smiling into the world. And with a deep understanding of world history, tradition adds that on account of this smile all creatures in the world exulted, while evil spirits and adversaries in all parts of the earth fled away from it.

If we pass from these legends and traditions to the works of a single great genius, we might well call to mind the figure of Faust, into whom Goethe poured so many of his own feelings and ideas. When Faust, despairing of all existence, comes near to killing himself, he hears the Easter bells ring out and cries: “Tears spring forth, the earth holds me again.”11Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust I, 1.784. Tears are used here by Goethe to symbolise the state of soul which enables Faust, after experiencing the most bitter despair, to find his way back into the world.

Thus we can see, if we will only think about it, that laughing and weeping are related to things of great significance. But to speculate on the nature of spirit is easier than to seek the spirit where it is revealed in the world immediately around us. And we can find the spirit—and the human spirit in the first instance—precisely in those gestures of the soul that we call laughing and weeping. They cannot be understood unless we regard them as expressions of a person's inner spiritual life. But in order to do this we must not only accept man as a spiritual being, we have also to understand him. All the lectures in our present winter series have been devoted to this task. Hence we need give only a passing glance now at the being of man as seen by spiritual science. But that is the foundation on which we must build if we are to understand laughing and weeping.

We have seen that man, when we observe him in his totality, possesses a physical body, which he has in common with the mineral realm; an etheric or life-body, which he has in common with the plants; and an astral body which he has in common with the animal kingdom. The astral body is the bearer of pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow, terror and amazement, and also of all the ideas which flow into and out of his soul from waking until he falls asleep. These are man's three external sheaths and within them lives the ego which makes him the crown of creation. The ego works in the soul-life on its three components, the sentient soul, intellectual soul and consciousness soul, and we have seen how it works to bring man ever nearer to fulfilment.

What, then, is the basis of the ego's activities within the human soul? Let us look at some examples of its behaviour.

Suppose that the ego, this deepest centre of man's spiritual life, encounters some object or being in the outer world. The ego does not remain indifferent towards the object or the being; it expresses itself in some way and experiences something inwardly, according to whether the encounter pleases or displeases it. The ego may exult at some occurrence or it may fall into deepest sadness; it may recoil in terror, or it may lovingly contemplate or embrace the source of the event. And the ego can also have the experience of understanding or not understanding whatever is involved.

From our observation of the ego's activities between waking and falling asleep we can see how it tries to bring itself into harmony with the external world. If some entity pleases us and makes us feel that here we have something that warms us, we weave a bond with it; something from ourselves connects with it. That is what we do with our whole environment. During our entire waking life we are concerned, as regards our inner soul-processes, with creating harmony between our ego and the rest of the world. The experiences that come to us through objects or beings in the outer world and are reflected in our soul-life, work on the three constituents of the soul where the ego dwells but also on the astral, etheric and physical bodies. We have already given several examples of how the relation established by the ego between itself and any object or being not only stirs the emotions of the astral body and corrects the currents and movements of the etheric body but affects the physical body also. Who has not noticed how someone will turn pale when something frightening approaches? This means that the bond formed by the ego between itself and the frightening entity works into the physical body and affects the flow of the blood, so that the person concerned turns pale.

We have mentioned also an opposite effect, the blush of shame. When we feel that our relationship with someone in our environment is such that we would like to disappear for a moment, the blood mounts to the face. Here we have two examples of a definite influence on the blood caused by the ego's relation to the outer world. Many other examples could be given of how the ego expresses itself in the astral, etheric and physical bodies.

This search by the ego for harmony, or for a definite relationship between itself and its environment, results in certain consequences. In some cases we may feel that we have established a right relationship between the ego and the object or being. Even if we have good reason for feeling fear of a being, our ego may still feel that it has been in harmony with its environment, including fear itself—though we may not be able to see it in that light until afterwards.

The ego feels especially in tune with its environment if it has been trying to understand certain things in the outer world and finally succeeds. Then it feels united with these things, as though it had gone out of itself and immersed itself in them, and can feel itself rightly related to them. Or it may be that the ego lives with other people in an affectionate relationship: then it feels happy and satisfied and in harmony with its surroundings. These feelings of contentment then pass over into its astral and etheric bodies.

It may happen, however, that the ego fails to establish this harmony and so falls short of what we may call, in a certain sense, the normal. Then it may find itself in a difficult situation. Suppose the ego encounters some object or being it cannot understand; suppose it tries in vain to find a right relationship to this entity; yet it has to take up a definite attitude towards it. A concrete example: suppose we meet in the outer world a being we do not want to understand, because it seems not worthwhile for our ego to penetrate into its nature; we feel that to do so would mean surrendering too much of our own force of knowledge and understanding. In such a case we have to set up a sort of barrier against it so as to keep ourselves free from it. By turning our forces away from it we become conscious of them, while we enhance our own self-consciousness. The feeling that comes over us then is one of liberation.

When this occurs, clairvoyant observation can see how the ego withdraws the astral body from the impressions which the environment or the being might make on it. The impressions will, of course, be made on our physical body unless we close our eyes or stop up our ears. The physical body is less under our control than the astral, so we draw back the astral from the physical and thus save it from being touched by impressions from the outer world. This withdrawal of the astral body, which would otherwise expend its energy on the physical body, appears to clairvoyant observation as an expansion of the astral: at the moment of its liberation it spreads out. When we raise ourselves above a being, we cause our astral body to expand like an elastic substance: we relax its normal tension. By so doing we liberate ourselves from any bond with the being we wish to turn away from. We withdraw into ourselves, as it were, and raise ourselves above the whole situation. Everything that occurs in the astral body comes to expression in the physical, and the physical expression of this expansion of the astral body is laughing or smiling.

These facial gestures, accordingly, indicate that we are raising ourselves above what is happening around us because we do not want to apply our understanding to it and from our standpoint are right not to do so. It would be true to say, therefore, that anything we are not intending to understand will cause an expansion of our astral body and thus give rise to laughter. Satirical papers often depict public men with huge heads and tiny bodies, which is a way of expressing grotesquely the significance of these men for their time. To try to make sense of this would be futile, for there is no law which could unite a huge head with a tiny body. Any attempt to apply our reason to it would be a waste of energy and mental power. The only satisfying thing is to raise ourselves above the impression it makes on our physical body, to become free in the ego and to expand the astral body. For what the ego experiences is passed on in the first place to the astral body, and the corresponding facial gesture is laughter.

It may happen, however, that we cannot find the relationship to our environment that our soul needs. Suppose that for a long time we have loved someone who is not only closely related to our daily life but is associated with particular soul-experiences that arise from this close attachment. Suppose, then, that this person is torn from us for a while. With that loss, a part of our soul-experiences is torn away; a bond between ourselves and a being in the outer world is broken. Because of the soul-condition created by our relationship with this other person, our soul has good reason to suffer from this breaking of a bond it has long cherished. Something is torn from the ego, and the effect on the ego passes over into the astral body. Since in this case something is taken from the astral, it contracts: or, more exactly, the ego presses the astral body together.

This can always be clairvoyantly observed when a person suffers pain or grief from some loss. Just as the expanded astral body loses tension and creates in the physical body the gesture of laughing or smiling, so a contracted astral body penetrates more deeply into all the forces of the physical body and contracts it along with itself. The bodily expression of this contraction is a flow of tears. The astral body, having been left with gaps as it were, wants to fill them by contracting, while making use of substances from its environment. In so doing, it also contracts the physical body and squeezes out the latter's substances in the form of tears. What, then, are these tears?

The ego has lost something in its grief and deprivation. It draws itself together, because it is impoverished and feels its selfhood less strongly than usual, for the strength of this feeling is related to the richness of its experiences in the surrounding world. We not only give something to those we love; we enrich our own souls by so doing. And when the experiences that love gives us are taken away and the astral body contracts, it seeks to regain by this pressure on itself the forces it has lost. Because it feels impoverished, it tries to make itself richer again. The tears are not merely an outflow; they are a sort of compensation for the stricken ego. The ego had formerly felt itself enriched by the outer world; now it feels strengthened by itself producing the tears. If someone suffers a weakening of self-consciousness, he tries to compensate for this by spurring himself on to an inward act of creation, manifest in the flow of tears. The tears give the ego a subconscious feeling of well-being; a certain balance is restored. You all know how people, when they are in the depths of grief and misery, find consolation, a kind of compensation, in tears. You will know, too, how people who cannot weep find sorrow and pain much harder to endure.

The ego, then if it cannot achieve a satisfying relationship with the outer world, will either raise itself to inner freedom through laughter, or it will sink into itself in order to gain strength after a deprivation. We have seen how it is the ego, the central point in man, which expresses itself in laughing and weeping. Hence you will find it easy to understand that in a certain sense the ego is a necessary precondition of laughter and tears.

If we observe a new-born child, we find that during its first days it can neither laugh nor weep. True laughing or weeping begins only around the 36th or 40th day. The reason is that although an ego from a former incarnation is living in the child, it does not immediately seek to relate itself to the outer world. A human being is placed into the world in such a way that he is built up from two sides. From one side he derives all the attributes and facilities acquired by heredity from father, mother, grandfather and so on. All this is worked on by the individuality, the ego that goes on from life to life, bearing with it its own soul-qualities. When a child enters existence at birth, we see at first only an undefined physiognomy, and quite undefined also are the talents, capacities and special characteristics which will emerge later on. But presently we are able to observe how the ego, with the powers of development it has brought from previous lives, works unceasingly on the infant organism and modifies the inherited elements. Thus the inherited qualities are blended with those which pass from one incarnation to another.

That is how the ego is active in the child, but it is some time before the ego can begin to transform body and soul. During its early days, the child shows only its inherited characteristics. The ego, meanwhile, remains deeply hidden, waiting until it can impress on the undefined physiognomy the qualities it has brought from previous lives and will develop from day to day and year to year.

Before the child has taken on the individual character that belongs to it, it cannot express a relationship to the outer world through laughing or crying. For this requires the ego, the individuality, which tries to place itself in harmony with the outer world. Only the ego can express itself in laughter or tears. So it is that when we consider laughing and weeping, we are dealing with the deepest and most inward spirituality of man.

Those who refuse to admit any real distinction between men and animals will of course try to find analogies to laughing and weeping in the animal kingdom. But anyone who understands these things rightly will agree with the German poet who says that animals can rise at most only to howling, never to weeping; they can show their teeth in a grin but they never smile. Herein lies a deep truth which we can express in words by saying that the animal does not raise itself to the individual egohood which dwells in every human being. The animal is ruled by laws which appear to resemble those appertaining to human selfhood but remain external to the animal throughout its life. This essential difference between human beings and animals has already been mentioned here, and it was said that what interests us in the animal is comprised in the species to which it belongs. For example, there are no such great difference between lions and their progeny as we may find between human parents and their offspring. The main characteristics of an animal are those of its type or species. In the human realm every person has his own individual characteristics and his own biography, and this is what concerns us, whereas in animals it is the history of the species. Certainly there are many dog-owners and cat-owners who aver that they could write a biography of their pet, and I even knew a schoolmaster who regularly set his pupils the exercise of writing the biography of a pen. The fact that a thought can be applied to anything is not important; what matters is that we should penetrate with our understanding the essential nature of a being or a thing. Individual biography is significant for man, but not for animals, for the essential part of man is the individuality which goes on and develops from life to life, whereas in animals it is the species that lives on and evolves.

In spiritual science, the enduring element that informs the species is called the animal's group-soul or group-ego, and we regard it as a reality. Thus we say that the animal has its ego outside itself. We do not deny the animal an ego, but we speak of the group-ego which directs the animal from outside. With man, by contrast, we speak of an individual penetrating right into his inmost part and directing each human being from within in such a way that he can enter into a personal relationship with the beings in his environment. The relationships that animals establish through the guidance of the external group-ego have a general character. What this or that animal likes or hates or fears is typical for its species, modified only in minor details among domestic animals and those which live with men. In human beings, what a person feels by way of love and hate, fear, sympathy or antipathy in relation to his environment springs from his individual ego. Thus the special relationship whereby man liberates himself from something in his environment and expresses his relief in laughter, or, in the opposite case, when he seeks for a relationship he cannot find and expresses his frustration in tears—all this can occur in man only. The more the individuality of the child makes itself evident above the animal level, the more does it show its humanity through laughter and tears.

If we are to take a true view of life, we must not attach primary importance to such crude facts as the similarities of bone and muscle in men and animals or the resemblances between some other organs. We must look for man's essential characteristics as evidence of his status as the highest of earthly beings in subtler aspects of his nature. If anyone cannot see the significance of such facts as laughter and tears for bringing out the difference between men and animals, one has to say: Nothing can be done to help a person who cannot rise to the facts which matter most in coming to understand man in his spirituality.

The facts we are now considering in the light of spiritual science can illuminate certain scientific findings, but only if the facts are placed in the context of a great spiritual-scientific whole. If we observe a person laughing or weeping, we can see that a change in the breathing process occurs. When sorrow goes as deep as tears, leading to a contraction of the astral body, and hence to a contraction also of the physical body, the in-breathing becomes shorter and shorter and the out-breathing longer and longer. In laughter the opposite occurs: the in-breathing is long and the out-breathing short. When a person's astral body is relaxed, and with it the finer parts of the physical body, the situation resembles that of a hollow space from which all the air is pumped out and immediately the outside air rushes in. A kind of liberation of the outer corporeality occurs in laughter, and then a long breath of air is drawn in. In weeping the opposite occurs. We press the astral together and with it the physical body, and the contraction causes an out-breathing in one long stretch.

Here, again, we have an instance where a soul-experience is brought by the ego into connection with the physical, right down into the physical body of man.

If we take these physiological facts, they will wonderfully illuminate an event which is recorded symbolically in the ancient religious records of mankind. You will remember the passage in the Old Testament which tells how man was raised to fully human status when Jahve or Jehovah breathed into him the breath of life and thereby endowed him with a living soul.12Genesis 2, 7 That is the moment when the birth of selfhood is impressed on our attention. Thus in the Old Testament the breathing process is shown as an expression of true ego-hood and brought into relation with the soul-quality of man. If we then recall how laughing and weeping are a unique expression of the human ego, we see at once the intimate connection between the breathing process and the soul-nature in man; and then, in the light of this knowledge, we come to look on the ancient religious records with the humility that such a deep and true understanding must instil in us.

For spiritual science these records are not necessary. Even if they were all destroyed in a great catastrophe, spiritual-scientific research has the means to discover for itself what lies at the root of them. But when the facts have been ascertained by this means, and when later the same facts are found to be unmistakably rendered in the symbolic-pictorial language of the old records, our understanding of the records is greatly enhanced. We feel that they must originate from seers who knew what the spiritual-scientific researcher discovers—spiritual vision meets spiritual vision across thousands of years, and from this knowledge we gain the right attitude towards these records. When we are told how God breathed his own living breath into man, whereby man would find his own in-dwelling ego, we can see from our study of laughter and tears how true to human nature is this symbolically recorded event.

There is one other point I will mention, but only briefly, or it would lead us too far afield. Someone might say to me: you have started at the wrong end, you ought to have started with the external facts. The spiritual element should be sought where it appears purely as a natural occurrence—for example when a person is tickled. That is the most elementary fact about laughter. How do you reconcile that with all your fantasies about the expansion of the astral body and so forth?

Well, it is just in such a case that an expansion of the astral body occurs, and everything I have described comes to pass, though on a lower level. If someone tickles himself on the soles of his feet, he knows very well what is happening and is not impelled to laugh. But if he is tickled on the sole by someone else, he will reject it as an alien incursion, not to be rationally understood. Then his ego will try to rise above it, to liberate itself and set the astral body free. This freeing of the astral from an inappropriate contact expresses itself in laughter without motive. That signifies precisely a liberation, a rescue of the ego on a fundamental level, from the attack made on us by the tickling of our feet.

Laughing at a joke or at something comic is on the same level. We laugh at a joke because laughter brings us into a right relationship with it. A joke associates things which in serious life are kept apart; if the connection between them could be logically grasped, it would not be comic. A joke sets up relationships which—unless we are topsy-turvy minded—do not call for understanding but only for playing a sort of game. Directly we feel masters of the game, we free ourselves and rise above the content of the joke. This liberation, this raising ourselves above something, we shall always find when laughter breaks out.

But this kind of relationship to the outer world may or may not be justified. We may rightly wish to liberate ourselves through laughter; or alternatively our own cast of mind may make us unwilling or unable to understand what is going on. Laughter will then derive from our own limitations, not from the nature of things. This is what happens when an undeveloped human being laughs at someone because he cannot understand him. If an undeveloped human being fails to find in another the commonplace or philistine qualities that he regards as right and proper, he may think he need not try to understand the other person and so he tries to free himself—perhaps because he does not want to understand. So it can easily become a habit to liberate oneself through laughter on all occasions. There are indeed certain people for whom it is quite natural to laugh and bleat at everything, without ever trying to understand anything; they fluff out their astral and so are continually laughing. Or it may be that attitudes currently in fashion make it seem that some everyday behaviour is not worth any attempt to understand it. Then people will allow themselves a smile, feeling that they are superior to this or that. Hence you will see that laughter does not always express a feeling of justified withdrawal; the withdrawal can also be unjustified. But the fundamental facts concerning laughter are not affected either way.

It may happen also that someone makes calculated use of this form of human expression. Consider a speaker who calculates the effect his words will have on his hearers, whether they agree with him or not. Now it may be justified for him to refer to things so trivial or so far below the level of his audience that they can be described without weaving any intimate link between them and the souls of his hearers. In fact, by so doing he may help them to free themselves from the trivialities that surround the subject which he really wants to get them to understand. But there are also speakers who always want to get the laugh on their side. I have heard them saying: If I am to win I must stimulate laughter, so that I will have the laughers on my side—for if anyone has the laughers on his side, his case is as good as won! That may spring from inward dishonesty. For anyone who appeals to laughter is evoking a response which is intended to raise his hearers above something. But if he presents the matter in such a way that his hearers need not try to understand it but can laugh at it only because it has been brought down to a level where it appears trivial—then he is counting on human vanity, even though his hearers may not be aware of it. So you can see that this counting on laughter may involve a certain dishonesty.

In the same way it is sometimes possible to win people over by stirring in them the feelings of comfort and well-being which I have described as being associated with tears. In such cases, when some loss is brought before a person in imagination only, he may indulge himself in craving for something he knows he cannot find. By contracting his ego he feels his selfhood strengthened; and often this kind of appeal to the emotions is really an appeal to human selfishness. All these forms of appeal can thus be grossly misused, because pain and grief, mockery and scorn, which may be accompanied by tears or laughter, are all connected with strengthening or liberating the ego and so with human egohood. When therefore such appeals are made, it may be our selfishness that is addressed, and it is selfishness that destroys the bonds between man and man.

In other lectures we have seen that the ego not only works on the sentient soul, the intellectual soul and the consciousness soul, but through this work is itself made stronger and brought nearer fulfilment. Hence we can readily understand that laughing and weeping can be a means whereby the ego can educate itself and further strengthen its powers. No wonder, then, that among the great sources of education for human development we rank those dramatic creations which stimulate the soul-forces that find expression in laughter and tears.

Our experience of tragic drama does in fact have the effect of pressing the astral body together and so imparting firmness and inner cohesion to the ego. Comedy expands the astral body, inasmuch as a person raises himself above follies and coincidences and thereby liberates the ego. Hence we can see how closely connected with human development are tragedy and comedy, when through artistic creations they come before our souls.

Anyone who can observe human nature in its smallest details will find that everyday experiences can lead to an understanding of the greatest facts. Artistic productions, for example, can make us see that in human life there is a kind of pendulum which swings to and fro between laughter and tears. The ego can progress only by being in motion. If the pendulum were at rest, the ego would not be able to expand or develop; it would succumb to inward death. It is right for human development that the ego should be able to free itself through laughter and on the other hand to search for itself through tears. Certainly a balance between the two poles must be found: the ego will find completion only in the balance, never in swinging to and fro between exultation and despair. It will find itself only at the point of rest, which can swing over as easily to one extreme as to the other.

The human being must gradually become the guide and leader of his own development. If we understand laughter and tears, we can see them as revelations of the spirit, for a human being becomes transparent, as it were, if we know how in laughter he seeks an outward expression of inner liberation, while in tears he experiences an inner strengthening after the ego has suffered a loss in the external world.

To the question as to what laughter fundamentally is, we can reply: It is a spiritual expression of man's striving for liberation, in order that he may not be entangled in things unworthy of him but with a smile may rise above things to which he should never be enslaved. Similarly, tears are an expression of the fact that when the thread linking him to someone in the outer world has been broken, he still seeks for such a link in the midst of his tears. When he strengthens his ego through weeping, he is in effect saying to himself, I belong to the world and the world to me, for I cannot endure being torn away from it.

Now at last we can understand how this liberation, rising above everything base and evil, could be expressed in the “Zarathustra smile”, at which all creatures on earth exulted, while the spirits of evil fled away. That smile is the symbol in world-history of the spiritual elevation of the ego above everything that might strangle it. And if the ego comes to an occasion when it feels that existence is worthless and that it wants to have no more to do with the world, and if then a power rises up in the soul which impels the ego to affirm, “The world belongs with me and I with the world”, then this feeling is rendered in Goethe's “The tears flow forth—the earth holds me again!”

These words give voice to a conviction that we cannot be shut off from the earth and that even in our tears we assert our intimate connection with the world at the very moment when it seems to be taken from us. And for this assertion there is justification in the deep secrets of the world.

Man's connection with the world is made known to us by the tears on his face, and his liberation from everything base by the smile upon his countenance.