23 February 1924, Dornach
Karma is best understood by contrasting it with the other impulse in man — that impulse which we describe with the word Freedom. Let us first place the question of karma before us, quite crudely, if I may say so. What does it signify? In human life we have to record the fact of reincarnation, successive earthly lives. Feeling ourselves within a given earthly life, we can look back — in thought, at least, to begin with — and see how this present life is a repetition of a number of former earthly lives. It was preceded by another, and that in turn by yet another life on earth, and so on until we get back into the ages where it is impossible to speak of repeated earthly lives as we do in the present epoch of the earth. For as we go farther backward, there begins a time when the life between birth and death and the life between death and a new birth become so similar to one another that the immense difference which exists today between them is no longer there at all. Today we live in our earthly body between birth and death in such a way that in everyday consciousness we feel ourselves quite cut off from the spiritual world. Out of this everyday consciousness men speak of the spiritual world as a “beyond.” They will even speak of it as though they could doubt its existence or deny it altogether.
This is because man's life in earthly existence restricts him to the outer world of the senses, and to the intellect; and intellect does not look far enough to perceive what is, after all, connected with this earthly existence. Hence there arise countless disputations, all of which ultimately have their source in the “unknown.” No doubt you will often have stood between, when people were arguing about Monism, Dualism and the rest ... It is, of course, absurd to argue around these catch-words. When people wrangle in this way, it often seems as though there were some primitive man who had never heard that there is such substance as “air.” To one who knows that air exists, and what its functions are, it will not occur to speak of it as something that is “beyond.” Nor will he think of declaiming: “I am a Monist; I declare that air, water and earth are one. You are a Dualist, because you persist in regarding air as something that goes beyond the earthly and watery elements.”
These things, in fact, are pure nonsense, as indeed all disputes about concepts generally are. Therefore there can be no question of our entering into these arguments. I only wish to point out the significance. For a primitive man who does not yet know of its existence, the air as such is simply absent; it is “beyond,” beyond his ken. Likewise for those who do not yet know it, the spiritual world is a “beyond,” in spite of the fact that it is everywhere present just as the air is. For a man who enters into these things, it is no longer “beyond” or “on the other side,” but “here,” “on this side.”
Thus it is simply a question of our recognising the fact: In the present earthly era, man between birth and death lives in his physical body, in his whole organisation, so that this very organisation gives him a consciousness through which he is cut off from a certain world of causes. But the world of causes, none the less, is working as such into this physical and earthly life. Then, between death and a new birth he lives in another world, which we may call a spiritual world by contrast with this physical. There he has not a physical body, such as could be made visible to human senses; he lives in a spiritual form of being. Moreover, in that life between death and a new birth the world through which he lives between birth and death is in its turn as remote as the spiritual world is remote and foreign for everyday consciousness on earth.
The dead look down on to the physical world just as the living (that is, the physically living) look upward into the spiritual world. But their feelings are reversed, so to speak. In the physical world between birth and death, man has a way of gazing upward, as to another world which grants him fulfilment for very many things which are either deficient or altogether lacking in contentment in this world. It is quite different between death and a new birth. There, there is an untold abundance, a fulness of events. There is always far too much happening compared with what man can bear; therefore he feels a constant longing to return again into the earthly life, which is a “life in the beyond” for him there. In the second half of the life between death and a new birth, he awaits with great longing the passage through birth into a new earth-existence. In earthly existence man is afraid of death because he lives in uncertainty about it, for in the life on earth a great uncertainty prevails for the ordinary consciousness about the after-death. In the life between death and a new birth, on the other hand, man is excessively certain about the earthly life. It is a certainty that stuns him, that makes him actually weak and faint — so that he passes through conditions, like a fainting dream, conditions which imbue him with the longing to come down again to earth.
These are but scant indications of the great difference now prevailing between the earthly life and the life between death and a new birth. Suppose, however, that we now go back, say, no farther back than the Egyptian time — the third to the first millennium before the founding of Christianity. (After all, the men to whom we there go back are but ourselves, in former lives on earth.) In yonder time, the consciousness of man during his earthly life was quite different from ours today, which is so brutally clear, if you will allow me to say so. Truly, the consciousness of the men of today is brutally clear-cut, they are all so clever — I am not speaking ironically — the people of today are clever, all of them. Compared to this terribly clear-cut consciousness, the consciousness of the men of the ancient Egyptian time was far more dream-like. It did not impinge, like ours does, upon outer objects. It rather went its way through the world without “knocking up against” objects. On the other hand, it was filled with pictures which conveyed something of the Spiritual that is there in our environment. The Spiritual, then, still penetrated into man's physical life on earth.
Do not object: “How could a man with this more dream like, and not the clear-cut consciousness of today, have achieved the tremendous tasks which were actually achieved, for instance, in ancient Egypt?” You need not make this objection. You may remember how mad people sometimes reveal, in states of mania, an immense increase of physical strength; they will begin to carry objects which they could never lift when in their full, clear consciousness. Indeed, the physical strength of the men of that time was correspondingly greater; though outwardly they were perhaps slighter in build than the people of today — for, as you know, it does not always follow that a fat man is strong and a thin man physically weak. But they did not spend their earthly life in observing every detail of their physical actions; their physical deeds went parallel with experiences in consciousness into which the spiritual world still entered.
And when the people of that time were in the life between death and a new birth, far more of this earthly life reached upward into yonder life — if I may use the term “upward.” Nowadays it is exceedingly difficult to communicate with those who are in the life between death and a new birth, for the languages themselves have gradually assumed a form such as the dead no longer understand. Our nouns, for instance, soon after death, are absolute gaps in the dead man's perception of the earthly world. He only understands the verbs, the “words of time” as they are called in German — the acting, moving principle. Whereas on earth, materialistically minded people are constantly pulling us up, saying that everything should be defined and every concept well outlined and fixed by clear-cut definition, the dead no longer know of definitions; they only know of what is in movement, they do not know that which has contours and boundaries.
Here again, it was different in ancient times. What lives on earth as speech, and as custom and habit of thought, was of such a kind that it reached up into the life between death and a new birth, and the dead had it echoing in him still, long after his death. Moreover, he also received an echo of what he had experienced on earth and also of the things that were taking place on earth after his death.
And if we go still farther back, into the time following the catastrophe of Atlantis — the 8th or 9th millennium B.C. — the difference becomes even smaller between the life on earth and life in the Beyond, if we may still describe it so. And thence, as we go backward, we gradually get into the times when the two lives were similar. Thereafter, we can no longer speak of repeated earthly lives.
Thus, our repeated lives on earth have their limit when we go backward, just as they have their limit when we look into the future. What we are beginning quite consciously with Anthroposophy today — the penetration of the spiritual world into the normal consciousness of man — will indeed entail this consequence. Into the world which man lives through between death and a new birth, the earthly world will also penetrate increasingly; and yet man's consciousness will not grow dream-like, but clearer and ever clearer. The difference will again grow less. Thus, in effect, our life in repeated incarnations is contained between two outermost limits, past and future. Across these limits we come into quite another kind of human existence, where it is meaningless to speak of repeated earthly lives, because there is not the great difference between the earthly and the spiritual life, which there is today. Now let us concentrate on present earthly time — in the wide sense of the word. Behind our present earthly life, we may assume that there are many others — we must not say countless others, for they can even be counted by exact spiritual scientific investigation. Behind our present earthly life there are, therefore, many others. When we say this, we shall recognise that in those earthly lives we had certain experiences — relationships as between man and man. These relationships as between man and man worked themselves out in the experiences we then underwent; and their effects are with us in our present earthly life, just as the effects of what we do in this life will extend into our coming lives on earth. So then we have to seek in former earthly lives the causes of many things that enter into our life today.
At this point, many people are prone to retort: “If then the things I experience are caused, how can I be free?” It is a really significant question when we consider it in this way. For spiritual observation always shows that our succeeding earthly life is thus conditioned by our former lives. Yet, on the other hand, the consciousness of freedom is absolutely there. Read my Philosophy of Spiritual Activity and you will see: the human being cannot be understood at all unless we realise that the whole life of his soul is oriented towards freedom — filled with the tendency to freedom.
Only, this freedom must be rightly understood. Precisely in my Philosophy of Spiritual Activity you will find a concept of freedom which it is very important to grasp in its true meaning. The point is that we have freedom developed, to begin with, in thought. The fountain-head of freedom is in thought. Man has an immediate consciousness of the fact that he is a free being in his thought. You may rejoin: “Surely there are many people nowadays who doubt the fact of freedom?” Yes, but it only proves that the theoretical fanaticism of people nowadays is often stronger than their direct and real experience. Man is so crammed with theoretical ideas, that he no longer believes in his own experiences. Out of his observations of Nature, he arrives at the idea that everything is conditioned by necessity, every effect has a cause, all that exists has a cause. He does not think of repeated earthly lives in this connection. He imagines that what wells forth in human Thinking is causally determined in the same way as that which proceeds from any machine.
Man makes himself blind by this theory of universal causality, as it is called. He blinds himself to the fact that he has very clearly within him a consciousness of freedom. Freedom is simply a fact which we experience, the moment we reflect upon ourselves at all.
There are those who believe that it is simply the nervous system; the nervous system is there, once and for all, with its property of conjuring thoughts out of itself. According to this, the thoughts would be like the flame whose burning is conditioned by the materials of the fuel. Our thoughts would be necessary results, and there could be no question of freedom.
These people, however, contradict themselves. As I have often related, I had a friend in my youth, who, at a certain period had quite a fanatical tendency to think in a “sound,” materialistic way. “When I walk,” he said, “it is the nerves of' the brain; they contain certain causes to which the effect of my walking is due.” Now and then it led to quite a long debate between us, till at last I said to him on one occasion: “Look now. You also say: ‘I walk.’ Why do you not say, ‘My brain walks?’ If you believe in your theory, you ought never to say: ‘I walk; I take hold of things,’ and so on, but ‘My brain walks; my brain takes hold of them,’ and so on. Why do you go on lying?”
These are the theorists, but there also those who put it into practice. If they observe some failing in themselves which they are not very anxious to throw off, they say, “I cannot throw it off; it is my nature. It is there of its own accord, and I am powerless against it.” There are many like that; they appeal to the inevitable causality of their own nature. But its a rule, they do not remain consistent. If they happen to be showing off something that they rather like about themselves, for which they need no excuse, but on the contrary are glad to receive a little flattery, then they depart from their theory.
The free being of man is a fundamental fact — one of those facts which can be directly experienced. In this respect, however, even in ordinary earthly life it is so: there are many things we do in complete freedom which are nevertheless of such a kind that we cannot easily leave them undone. And yet we do not feel our freedom in the least impaired.
Suppose, for a moment, that you now resolve to build yourself a house. It will take a year to build, let us say. After a year you will begin to live in it. Will you feel it as an encroachment on your freedom that you then have to say to yourself: The house is ready now, and I must move in ... I must live in it; it is a case of compulsion. No. You will surely not feel your freedom impaired by the mere fact that you have built yourself a house. You see, therefore, even in ordinary life the two things stand side by side. You have committed yourself to something. It has thereby become a fact in life — a fact with which you have to reckon.
Now think of all that has originated in former lives on earth, with which you have to reckon because it is due to yourself — just as the building of the house is due to you. Seen in this light, you will not feel your freedom impaired because your present life on earth is determined by former ones.
Perhaps you will say: “Very well. I will build myself a house, but I still wish to remain a free man. I shall not let myself be compelled. If I do not choose to move into the new house after a year, I shall sell it.” Certainly — though I must say, one might also have one's views about such a way of behaving. One might perhaps conclude that you are a person who does not know his own mind. Undoubtedly, one might well take this view of the matter; but let us leave it. Let us not suppose a man is such a fanatical upholder of freedom that he constantly makes up his mind to do things, and afterwards out of sheer “freedom” leaves them undone. Then one might well say: “This man has not even the freedom to go in for the things which he himself resolves upon. He constantly feels the sting of his would-be freedom; he is positively harassed, thrown hither and thither by his fanatical idea of freedom.”
Observe how important it is, not to take these questions in a rigid, theoretic way, but livingly. Now let us pass to a rather more intricate concept. If we ascribe freedom to man, surely we must also ascribe it to the other Beings, whose freedom is unimpaired by human limitations. For, as we rise to the Beings of the Hierarchies, they certainly are not impaired by limitations of human nature. For them indeed we must expect a higher degree of freedom. Now someone might propound a rather strange theological theory — to this effect: God must surely be free. He has arranged the world in a certain way; yet he has thereby committed Himself, He cannot change the World-Order every day. Thus, after all, He is un-free.
You see, you will never escape from a vicious circle if you thus contrast the inner necessity of karma and the freedom which is still an absolute fact of our consciousness, a simple outcome of self-observation. Take once more the illustration of the building of the house. I do not wish to run it to death, but at this point it can still help us along the way. Suppose some person builds himself a house. I will not say suppose I build myself a house, for I shall probably never do so! — But, let us say, some one builds himself a house. By this resolve, he does, in a certain respect, determine his future. Now that the house is finished, and if he takes his former resolve into account, no freedom apparently remains to him, as far as the living in the house is concerned. And though he himself has set this limitation on his freedom, nevertheless, apparently, no freedom is left to him ... But now, I beg you, think how many things there are that you would still be free to do in the house that you had built yourself. Why, you are even free to be stupid or wise in the house, and to be disagreeable or nice to your fellow-men. You are free to get up in the house early or late. There may be other necessities in this respect; but as far as the house is concerned, you are free to get up early or late. You are free to be an anthroposophist or a materialist in the house. In short, there are untold things still at your free disposal.
Likewise in a single human life, in spite of karmic necessity, there are countless things at your free disposal, far more than in a house — countless things fully and really in the domain of your freedom.
Even here you may still feel able to rejoin: Well and good. We have a certain domain of freedom in our life. Yes, there is a certain enclosed domain of freedom, and all around it, karmic necessity. Looking at this, you might argue: Well, I am free in a certain domain, but I soon get to the limits of my freedom. I feel the karmic necessity on every hand. I go round and round in the room of my freedom, but at the boundaries on every hand I come up against limitations.
Well, my dear friends, if the fish thought likewise, it would be highly unhappy in the water, for as it swims it comes up against the limits of the water. Outside the water, it can no longer live. Hence it refrains from going outside the water. It does not go outside; it stays in the water. It swims around in the water, and whatever is outside the water, it lets it alone; it just lets it be what it is — air, or whatever else. And inasmuch as it does so, I can assure you the fish is not at all unhappy to think that it cannot breathe with lungs. It does not occur to it to be unhappy. But if ever it did occur to the fish to be unhappy because it only breathes with gills and not with lungs, then it would have to have lungs in reserve, so as to compare what it is like to live down in the water, or in the air. Then the whole way the fish feels itself inside, would be quite different. It would all be different.
Let us apply this comparison to human life with respect to freedom and karmic necessity. To begin with, man in the present earthly time has what we call the ordinary consciousness. With this consciousness he lives in the province of his freedom, just as the fish lives in the water. He does not come into the realm of karmic necessity at all, with everyday consciousness. Only when he begins to see the spiritual world (which is as though the fish were to have lungs in reserve) — only when he really lives into the spiritual world — then he begins to perceive the impulses living in him as karmic necessity. Then he looks back into his former lives on earth, and, finding in them the causes of his present experiences, he does not feel: “I am now under compulsion of an iron necessity: my freedom is impaired,” but he looks back and sees how he himself built up what now confronts him. Just as a man who has built himself a house looks back on the resolve which led him to build it ... He generally finds it wiser to ask, was it a sensible or a foolish resolve, to build this house? No doubt, in the event, you may arrive at many different conclusions on this question; but if you conclude that it was a dreadful mistake, you can say at most that you were foolish.
In earthly life this is not a pleasant experience, for when we stand face to face with a thing we have inaugurated, we do not like having to admit that it was foolish. We do not like to suffer from our own foolish mistakes. We wish we had not made the foolish decision. But this really only applies to the one earthly life; because in effect, between the foolishness of the resolve and the punishment we suffer in experiencing its consequences, only the self-same earthly life is intervening. It all remains continuous.
But between one earthly life and another it is not so. For the lives between death and a new birth are always intervening, and they change many things which would not change if earthly life continued uniformly. Suppose that you look back into a former life on earth. You did something good or ill to another man. Between that earthly life and this one, there was the life between death and new birth. In that life, you cannot help realising that you have become imperfect by doing wrong to another human being. It takes away from your own human value. It cripples you in soul. You must make good again this maiming of your soul and you resolve to achieve in a new earthly life what will make good the fault. Thus between death and new birth you take up, by your own will, that which will balance and make good the fault. Or if you did good to another man, you know now that all of man's earthly life is there for mankind as a whole. You see it clearly in the life between death and new birth. If therefore you have helped another man, you realise that he has thereby attained certain things which, without you, he could not have attained in a former life on earth. And you then feel all the more united with him in the life between death and new birth — united with him, to live and develop further what you and he together have attained in human perfection. You seek him again in a new life on earth, to work on thus in a new life precisely by virtue of the way you helped in his perfection.
When therefore, with real spiritual insight, you begin to perceive this encompassing domain, there is no question of your despising or seeking to avoid its necessity. Quite the contrary; for as you now look back on it, you see the nature of the things which you yourself did in the past, so much so that you say to yourself: That which takes place, must take place, out of an inner necessity; and out of the fullest freedom it would have to take place just the same.
In fact it will never happen, under any circumstances, that a real insight into your karma will lead you to be dissatisfied with it. When things arise in the karmic course which you do not like, you need but consider them in relation to the laws and principles of the universe; you will perceive increasingly that after all, what is karmically conditioned is far better — better than if we had to begin anew, like unwritten pages, with every new life on earth. For, in the last resort, we ourselves are our karma. What is it that comes over, karmically, from our former lives on earth? It is actually we ourselves. And it is meaningless to suggest that anything in our karma (adjoining which, remember, the realm of freedom is always there), ought to be different from what it is. In an organic totality you cannot criticise the single details. A person may not like his nose, but it is senseless to criticise the nose as such, for the nose a man has, must be as it is, if the whole man is as he is. A man who says: “I should like to have a different nose,” implies that he would like to be an utterly different man; and in so doing he really wipes himself out in thought — which is surely impossible. Likewise we cannot wipe out our karma, for we are ourselves what our karma is. Nor does it really embarrass us, for it runs alongside the deeds of our freedom it nowhere impairs the deeds of our freedom.
I may here use another comparison to make the point clear. As human beings, we walk. But the ground on which we walk is also there. No man feels embarrassed in walking because the ground is there beneath him. He must know that if the ground were not there, he could not walk at all; he would fall through at every step. So it is with our freedom; it needs the ground of necessity. It must rise out of a given foundation. And this foundation — it is really we ourselves!
Therefore, if you grasp the true concept of freedom and the true concept of karma, you will find them thoroughly compatible, and you need no longer shrink from a detailed study of the karmic laws. In fact, in some instances you will even come to the following conclusion:
Suppose that some one is really able to look back with the insight of Initiation, into former lives on earth. He knows quite well, when he looks back into his former lives, that this and that has happened to him as a consequence. It has come with him into his present life on earth. If he had not attained Initiation Science, objective necessity would impel him to do certain things. He would do them quite inevitably. He would not feel his freedom impaired, for his freedom is in the ordinary consciousness, with which he never penetrates into the realm where the necessity is working — just as the fish never penetrates into the outer air. But when he has attained to Initiation Science, then he looks back; he sees how things were in a former life on earth, and he regards what now confronts him as a task quite consciously allotted for his present life. And so indeed it is.
What I shall now say may sound paradoxical to you, yet it is true. In reality, a man who has no Initiation Science practically always knows, by a kind of inner urge or impulse, what he is to do. Yes, people always know what they must do; they are always feeling impelled to this thing or that. For one who really begins to tread the path of Initiation Science it becomes very different. With regard to the various experiences of life as they confront him, strange questions will arise in him. When he feels impelled to do this or that, immediately again he feels impelled not to do it. There is no more of that dim urge which drives most human beings to this or that line of action. Indeed, at a certain stage of Initiate-insight, if nothing else came instead, a man might easily say to himself: Now that I have reached this insight — being 40 years old, let us say, I had best spend the rest of my life quite indifferently. What do I care? I'll sit down and do nothing, for I have no definite impulses to do anything particular.
You must not suppose, my dear friends, that Initiation is not a reality. It is remarkable how people sometimes think of these things. Of a roast chicken, every one who eats it, well believes that it is a reality. Of Initiation Science, most people believe that its effects are merely theoretical. No, its effects are realities in life, and among them is the one I have just indicated. Before a man has acquired Initiation Science, out of a dark urge within him one thing is always important to him and another unimportant. But now he would prefer to sit down in a chair and let the world run its course, for it really does not matter whether this is done or that is left undone ...
This attitude might easily occur, and there is only one corrective. (For it will not remain so; Initiation Science, needless to say, brings about other effects as well.) The only corrective which will prevent our Initiate from sitting down quiescently, letting the world run its course, and saying: “It is all indifferent to me,” is to look back into his former lives on earth. For he then reads in his karma the tasks for his present earthly life, and does what is consciously imposed upon him by his former lives. He does not leave it undone, with the idea that it encroaches on his freedom, but he does it. Quite on the contrary, he would feel himself unfree if he could not fulfil the task which is allotted to him by his former lives. For in beholding what he experienced in former lives on earth, at the same time he becomes aware of his life between death and a new birth, where he perceived that it was right and reasonable to do the corresponding, consequential actions. (At this point let me say briefly, in parenthesis, that the word “Karma” has come to Europe by way of the English language, and because of its spelling people very often say “Karma” (with broad “ah” sound.) This is incorrect. It should be pronounced “Kärma” (with modified vowel sound.) I have always pronounced the word in this way and I regret that as a result many people have become accustomed to using the dreadful word “Kirma”. For some time now you will have heard even very sincere students saying “Kirma.” It is dreadful).
Thus, neither before nor after Initiation Science is there a contradiction between karmic necessity and freedom.
Once more, then: neither before nor after the entry of Initiation Science is there a contradiction between necessity — karmic necessity — and freedom. Before it there is none, because with everyday consciousness man remains within the realm of freedom, while karmic necessity goes on outside this realm, like any process of Nature. There is nothing in him to feel differently from what his own nature impels. Nor is there any contradiction after the entry of Initiation Science, for he is then quite in agreement with his karma, he thinks it only sensible to act according to it. Just as when you have built yourself a house and it is ready after a year, you do not say: the fact that you must now move in is an encroachment on your freedom. You will more probably say: Yes, on the whole it was quite sensible to build yourself a house in this neighbourhood and on this site. Now see to it that you are free in the house! Likewise he who looks back with Initiate-knowledge into his former lives on, earth: he knows that he will become free precisely by the fulfilling of his karmic task-moving into the house which he built for himself in former lives on earth.
Thus, my dear friends, I wanted to explain to you the true compatibility of freedom and karmic necessity in human life. Tomorrow we shall continue, entering more into the details of karma.