Rudolf Steiner Archive


Physiology, Pathology and Therapeutics.


BY DR. E. KOLISKO, M.D. (Vienna).

This article is an exerpt from the book “The Fruits of Anthroposophy — an Introduction to The Work of Dr. Rudolf Steiner”, published in 1922 by The Threefold Commonwealth, London. The book was compiled and edited by George Kaufmann, M.A. Cantab.

AT Easter, 1920, Dr. Rudolf Steiner gave a three weeks' course of lectures on “Anatomy, Physiology, Pathology, and Therapeutics,” at the Goetheanum, to a class of over forty doctors and medical students. The aim of these lectures was to communicate to students and medical practitioners some of the results of spiritual scientific research. Such results are of great practical importance, above all, in medicine — since they point the way to a rational and effective science of healing; albeit they can only take effect when a sufficient number of professional men become convinced of the possibilities they open up, and thus devote themselves to the new spiritual science of therapeutics, and provide the means for its further development. (Note 2)

New and fruitful points of view for therapeutics can only result from a new physiology of the human bodily organism. It must be recognised that the human organism represents three systems, working side by side with a certain measure of independence. The first is the system of nerves and senses, comprising the functions of nerves and senses in all parts of the human body. Since these functions are largely centralized in the head, this first system may be called the “Head System.” The second is the “Rhythmic System,” which includes the functions of breathing and the circulation of the blood, and all other functions which express themselves in the rhythmic processes of the body. Being chiefly centralized in the thorax, the second system may be called the “Chest System,” though, of course, its rhythmic activity permeates the whole body. The third is the “Assimilating, or Digestive, System,” comprising the actual transformation of material in the human body. It is especially centralised in the region of the abdomen and in the members. These three systems, of course, interpenetrate one another, so much so that the ramifications of all three can be traced at every point in the human body. But in nature and essence they are distinct. (Note 3) The system of the nerves and senses is the physical basis of waking consciousness, of sense-perception, and of ideation, (Note 4) or the formation of mental images. The peculiar thing about the activity of the nerves and senses is that it rests on processes of chemical disintegration. Indeed, the material of the nerves is a substance which is on its way into the lifeless, or inorganic, world. It has not gone so far in this direction as the substance of the bones, which is already passing out of the organic into the mineral world, and which, together with the nerves and senses, prevails in the human head. Unlike the neural substance, the bony material lacks the power of regeneration and inner reformation. Our conscious mental life, being based on neural activity, abstracts the constructive force from the nerves, whose substance is thus given over, as long as we are awake, to processes of disintegration or destruction. In effect, it is by these destructive processes that we rise to the conscious, waking life of thought and ideation.

The digestive or assimilatory system, on the other hand, is the physical basis of the more subconscious processes of our psychical life. It is the physical basis of volition, of the life of will. Modern natural science endeavours to base the whole of man's psychical life on the system of nerves and senses. Dr, Steiner, however, indicates that the assimilatory processes of the digestive system are the direct and immediate physical basis of volition, just as the neural processes are the basis of ideation. We are, of course, totally unconscious of the processes of digestion and blood formation, of the whole anabolic or constructive activity of assimilation.

Through the system of the nerves and senses, light, heat, &c. — what we may call the imponderabilia of the physical world — work on man. The digestive system, on the other hand, assimilates, transforms, and incorporates the ponderable materials.

The characteristic processes of the upper man, the man of nerves and senses, are thus altogether different from those of the lower or digestive man.

Between them is the rhythmic system, on whose processes the life of feeling is based. Dr. Steiner asserts that feeling itself is not conditioned by the neural system; it is only the idea or mental presentation (Vorstellung) of the feeling which is so conditioned. Feeling is based on the rhythmic processes of breathing and the circulation of the blood. The processes of the rhythmic system are not destructive, like those of the system of nerves and senses; nor constructive, like those of the digestive system; but are midway between the two. And as in ideation, which is based on the neural processes, man is awake, and in volition, which is based on digestive processes, he is more asleep, so, in feeling or emotion, he is, as it were, in a kind of dream-consciousness — midway between waking and sleeping.

Thus, each of the three systems is subject to its own distinct and peculiar laws. It is only by the middle man continually maintaining an equilibrium between the two extremes — the upper and lower man — that the unity of the human organism is achieved. It is a unity which does not exist once and for all, but which is being brought about all the time.

From the point of view of this new physiology, an organ like the heart, which belongs in the main to the rhythmic system, cannot be regarded as a pump driving the blood through the body: rather is it an organ which results from a balance or equilibration between the upper and the lower man. There is a contrast between all that is involved in the process of breathing on the one hand, and the assimilatory process (in the widest sense of the term) on the other. The lower organism assimilates and works up the materials of nourishment, and the nourishing juices thus formed are met by the air which is absorbed from outside through the activities of the upper organism. (Note 5) Thus there arises an interplay of liquid and airy currents, and the activity of the heart is a consequence of this mutual interaction of the two systems. This is true, even in the mechanical sense. The heart itself is set in motion by the interplay of currents; it does not, like a pump, produce them. Thus the activity of nerves and senses in connexion with the activity of breathing is the one pole; the assimilstion, distribution, and transformation of food is the other pole. These two extremes are balanced and harmonized in the rhythmic activities of breathing and the circulation of the blood. It is only when the matter is thought of in this way that light is thrown on all the facts of modern physiology, and on the nature of disease and morbid processes. Health is the outcome of 8 right balance or adjustment of the two extremes; illness results, in a multitude of ways,from an excessive development and activity of the one over and above the other. For every human being there is an individual and specific, though perfectly definite, relation between the processes in the upper system and the processes in the lower — a relation which determines his health.

The task is to recognise and observe the symptoms of every illness in such a way as to realise the loss of balance between the two poles in man. Every illness has, as it were, its own physiognomy, and points to one or other of the two extremes. Thus, for example, in the phenomena of hysteria we may recognize the result of certain irregular processes in the digestive system which have gone to a kind of climax or culmination. The upper system is too weak to hold them in check. It is the function of the lower organism to transform the materials of nourishment. These materials have, in the first place, their own inherent inorganic tendencies — the tendencies to follow the laws of chemical change, as in the world external to the human organism. These laws and tendencies must be brought under control and made subject to the inner laws of the human organism itself. If the upper system is too weak to overpower the extra-human chemical processes within the organism, hysteria may appear as a result. Hysteria is only one particular case of disturbances of this nature, but it reveals their characteristics in a very marked degree.

Conversely, the upper process may take possession of the upper organs tao powerfully: we then have the other extreme of this kind of disturbance. It appears in the phenomena of neurasthenia, which result from functional irregularities in the upper organism.

Illnesses which come down more into the physical life of the human body also reveal one-sided tendencies. They incline, if one may use these terms in a wider sense, towards the hysterical or towards the neurasthenic. The extended use of the terms is justified inasmuch as the irregularities of the upper and lower man are most clearly manifest in these two forms of morbid symptom. So one may recognize the contrast of the two extremes: on the one hand, in various diseases of the abdomen and lower parts of the body, and on the other hand, in the diseases of the head and throat. Here the disorders, which in hysteria and neurasthenia remain more purely functional, have come down into the physical.

Thus, it is only by recognizing with greater and greater clarity the threefold nature of the human body, that one can arrive at a natural systematization of pathological conditions. And this alone will provide a fruitful basis for a science of therepeutics. For example, in order to relate the forces of the plant world to the sick body of a man one must know the relationship between the nature of the plant and the nature of the human being. In the plant, when it is fully developed, we can also distinguish three elements. On the one hand, there is that which grows downwards to the earth, and forms the root; it is subject to gravity; it has a tendency to store up mineral substances, especially salts. Its task is to absorb liquids in which the foodstuffs are dissolved; it forms the transition to inorganic Nature. On the other hand, in the flower, in the organs of fertilization, the plant strives upwards towards the cosmos. It withdraws itself from earthly gravity, and absorbs, as nourishing substances, light and warmth; and from the flower; combustible, aromatic, sweet-smelling substances are evolved. In the leaves, the earthly and cosmic influences maintain a kind of balance. So the plant is placed between the opposite poles of gravity and light — the terrestrial and the cosmic.

In man, on the other hand, the organs of fertilization are turned downwards. It is in the human lower body that we find the processes which have to do with secretion, excretion, and the basis of sexuality; whereas in the upper man we find a tendency to mineralization. The middle system creates a balance; thus man is the complete opposite of the plant, even in the way he stands in the cosmos. The animal's position is at right angles to both; its direction is horizontal. Man has turned from the plant position through two right angles; the animal has accomplished only half that revolution.

Now, there are plants which have the root element more developed, in which the flower process is thrown more into the background. Then there are plants where the flower and fruit formation predominate: for example, a number of parasitic plants. Again, there are others in which the stalk is most emphasised: for instance, the equiseta; others where the leaves predominate — the cacti; and so forth. Such plants will, accordingly, have more influence on the lower organism or on the upper organism of man. A plant in which the tendency to form flower and fruit is paramount, will, in general, affect the lower human organism more; one which tends towards the root nature will affect the upper organism. The predominance of the leaf nature indicates affinity with the middle man.

It is only the recognition of the threefold division of man which makes it possible to find the relations of men's three systems to the individual species of the plant kingdom, and to understand where healing effects on each of the three systems may be sought for.

For mineral medicaments, similar considerations result; here we can start from the polar antithesis which exists between all things of the nature of salts on the one hand, and, on the other hand, such substances as phosphorus. These latter substance — phosphorus, for instance — bind to themselves the imponderable elements, especially light and warmth; whereas salts are formed by the complete exclusion of all imponderables. In the process of salt-formation, light, heat, &c., are evolved or liberated from the material substance, and by this separation of the imponderable elements the salt nature comes into being. Between salt and phosphorous substances lies the metallic element, which is not so strongly united to the imponderabilia as phosphorus, whereas, on the other hand, it does not so completely liberate them as does the salt-like substance. Phosphorous or sulphurous material, and salt material, are the two polar opposites; and between them lies metallic substance. (Note 6)

Now it is possible to observe how in different human beings there is an altogether different relationship of their psychicspiritual to their bodily element. For example, one may find in some patient that he is suffering from an intensified dream life. This indicates that his psychic-spiritual nature is too much separated from his physical body, and does not live sufficiently in the physical body. Perhaps the patient will at the same time have a tendency to peripheric inflammations or to obesity. Such symptoms can be observed in the most varied illnesses. Now in external nature it is a substance like phosphorus which has the characteristic of binding the imponderable elements firmly to itself. So also in its effect on man — it tends to bring his psychic-spiritual element more closely into union with his physical bodily nature.

The opposite conditions are found when the psychic-spiritual takes hold of the physical-bodily element too strongly — which will appear, for example, in certain disturbances of the secretory and excretory functions. We know how the secretions of various glands, and other excretory processes, are assisted by the formation of ideas having some connexion with the particular function. For example, the secretion of saliva is stimulated by the idea of rating, and similar things are true of the secretion of urine, of semen, and so forth. Thus, the gland functions when forces are abstracted or taken away from it in the form of ideas — in ideation. It is then that the gland secretes — i.e. separates out products of decomposition of secretions. Before the secretion began it was just the fact that the psychic-spiritual force was not being taken away which prevented the decomposition and secretion. There was, in effect, more force at the disposal of the gland for its maintenance and constructive processes. When the force is drawn off in psychic-spiritual activity, then the gland begins to secrete.

Thus, if there are disturbances in the secretory and excretory processes it indicates that the psychic-spiritual is too strongly bound up with the physical, Now, in Nature we find the saltlike substances with a tendency to throw out all the imponderabilia. And in this very property we may seek for a healing effect on man's organism, tending to repress the excessive influence of his psychic-spiritual on his physical-bodily element. Salt-like substances will thus be applicable as medicines in many illnesses of the lower body which depend on a preponderating influence of the psychic-spiritual organization over the activities of the lower man.

And in metallic substances we have something which can effect a balance, an equilibration, between those activities to which the phosphorous substances are applicable, and those to which salt-like substances are applicable. Through similar considerations we can also recognize the kind of effect which individual metals will have on specific illnesses and morbid processes. By their peculiar behaviour and property in Nature, we Learn to perceive their kinship with definite processes in the human organism.

Here we have only been able to illustrate, by a few instances, the many indications that were given in the course. By consideration of a large number of illnesses, and of medicaments from the mineral, plant, and animal kingdoms, a multitude of relationships were revealed — relationships which exist between external Nature and the human organism, and which can be used for therapeutic effects hitherto unknown and unapplied. Where modern medicine fails almost entirely — namely, in the case of morbid growths (more especially, cancerous growths), and in mental and psychical illnesses — there one was led to hope, after listening to Rudolf Steiner's explanations, that results, undreamt of before, might be attained by a development of therapeutics in the direction which he indicated.

In psychical illnesses, Dr. Steiner pointed out how changes in the brain are really only a secondary effect, and are always preceded by morbid processes in other organs — morbid processes which are approachable by physical means of healing. It is just the so-called mental illnesses which can least of all be healed by purely psychical methods, to which physical methods are especially applicable. Only one must first know the forces inherent in physical medicaments, in the kingdoms of Nature. The tragedy of materialism lies in its inability to recognize the real nature of the material. It lacks the power of a mode of thought that touches spiritual reality — the power to perceive the world of matter in its relation to the organism of man.

There was no question of taking sides with any of the existing schools or parties in medicine; but it was pointed out how all these parties were suffering from the effects of materialism. In allopathic medicine we see a general tendency to consider the sick man on the basis of certain secondary effects of the sickness, This tendency appears, for example, in the bacillus theory. Attention is diverted to the secondary effect, and this secondary effect is regarded as the cause. Instead of considering the human organism in such a way as to recognize how it has to become the bearer of the specific bacilli in question, they take the bacilli to be the primary thing. This results from the whole mode of thought of allopathic medicine.

HomSopathy does set out to consider the human being as a whole; but in homSopathic literature we find that for every medicine a whole army of diseases are listed to which that medicine is supposed to be applicable. The specific realities are not recognized; everything is supposed to be beneficial for so many diseases. Here, on the other hand, by a consideration of human and extra-human nature, we are trying, as it were, to narrow down the application of each medicament by recognizing its effects on definite specific processes in the organism of man.

Again, those who go in for “Nature-healing” draw attention to the healing forces in Nature, but the prevailing materialism does not enable them to understand the essence of Nature and of man and of the healing processes involved. Hence they suffer from this materialism no less than the other parties and schools of medicine.

A new and living science of medicine will only be possible by transmuting the whole of natural science in a way that accords with the needs and impulses of the age. This is what Anthroposophy is trying to do in every department of Natural Science; and only when this new Science of Nature is developed, along with a real perception of the being of man, will it be possible to evolve a new art of medicine.

At the close of the course those who took part in it signed a declaration, in which they made an urgent appeal to the public to help create the financial basis for the completion of the School (the Goetheanum), and the special Institutes for Research connected with it. “For in this course,” so we read in the declaration, “fundamental knowledge has been revealed, covering the whole sphere of medical science; and indications have been given for diagnostic, therapeutic, and social hygienic work — indications so far-reaching that it must be regarded as the central task of the present day in the sphere of medicine to create the possibility for their development, by founding a scientific medical institute to be attached to the Goetheanum at Dornach, A place must be created where qualified experts can work systematically and intensively at the development of medical science on the basis of Spiritual Science.”

Note 1:
Our thanks are due to the Editor of Anthroposophy for kind permission to re-publish this article.
Note 2:
No more than a minute portion of the great wealth of material revealed in the course, both as regards medicine and new points of view in physiology, can be given in a short report. Only the broad outlines and the most important suggestions can be here indicated. (A second course of lectures for doctors and medical students was given at the Goetheanum in the spring of 1921. See Appendix, Section V, p. 143.)
Note 3:
In the course of this report, the Head, Chest, and Digestive Systems and their Processes and functions, are often denoted by the adjectives “upper,” “middle,” and “lower,” a use of terms which is, of course, derived from the centralization of the three systems in the head, chest, and. abdomen respectively.
Note 4:
Das Vorstellen.
Note 5:
Note that breathing, inasmuch as it is rhythmic, belongs to the rhythmic system; the operations of drawing in the outer air are, however, at the same time conditioned by the upper organism.
Note 6:
Cf. Dr. Kolisko's chemical essays and lectures, mentioned in the Bibliography under 233.

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