The Nature of Eternity
21 March 1912, Berlin
In a brief outline of philosophical thought Lessing alluded once to the only doctrine he considered worthy of the human soul — the doctrine he then expounded, in a form suited to Western consciousness, in his masterly treatise, ‘The Education of the Human Race’. He speaks there of reincarnation, of the repeated earthly lives experienced by the human soul, and continues somewhat as follows. Why, he asks, should this doctrine, so obvious in primeval days to the soul of man and one of its earliest treasures, while the soul was still uncorrupted by all kinds of theorising — why should this doctrine be less true than many other doctrines which in the course of time have been accepted as the result of philosophical speculation? After plainly indicating how this theory of repeated earthly lives is the only reasonable one for the human soul, Lessing says we might well expect that any unprejudiced man, willing to let the true nature of the soul work upon him, would grow accustomed to the doctrine — were it not for two things. We are certainly eager to know what Lessing meant by these two things that hindered the human soul from accepting the doctrine of repeated earthly lives. Lessing, however, never finished his sentence, having presumably been disturbed. He breaks off with the words: ‘were it not for two things’, and a colon. Nowhere in his writings, moreover, do we find anything to tell us what he considered these two things to be, although all kinds of speculations have been advanced by scholars who have made a special study of his work.
Now perhaps our conscience may allow us to assume that Lessing was most probably thinking of two things generally repellent to people when reincarnation is mentioned — two impulses rising up in the soul against the idea. One impulse may be expressed thus: whatever may be maintained by any form of spiritual science in favour of reincarnation, one thing is certain — that in normal consciousness we have no recollection of having lived before on Earth. Therefore, even should repeated earthly lives be in accordance with truth, they would seem to be of no significance for human consciousness and must therefore appear to it as an arbitrary hypothesis. That, for many souls, is certainly one of the objections to the idea of reincarnation. The second arises from a sense of justice towards oneself. Repeated earthly lives require an acceptance of destiny — whether we are fortunate or unfortunate, gifted or not in worldly affairs — as a consequence of what we have done in previous lives; so that, to a far greater extent than is generally believed, we ourselves would be the makers of our good fortune and abilities, or the reverse. Many souls may well exclaim: ‘If I have to accept my destiny, if my earthly existence is indeed burdened with that, have I got to accept also that I myself — the Ego within me — has in earlier lives on Earth created the destiny in which I am now involved?’ This is what could be called a man's sense of justice towards himself.
Anyone who delves more deeply into Lessing's ways of thinking and into his whole nature, making it part of his own soul will not doubt that this pioneer of the reincarnation theory meant to indicate these two objections to it. In the course of our study of eternity and of man's soul in connection with it, it will be well to pay attention to the facts just described. So now we will once again call to mind something said by the German philosopher Hegel about eternity — how if eternity belongs by nature to the human soul, it must certainly not reveal itself only after death, but must be capable of being experienced during life on Earth. Hegel puts it like this: Eternity cannot begin for the soul only at death but must belong to it already during earthly life. If we seek it in man's soul, if we seek to know how eternity lives in us and how we can investigate it by looking into our own depths, why should it not reveal itself at once, if, in the sense of Spiritual Science, it is so intimately bound up with the soul?
Former lectures have shown that this close connection holds good between what we may call the outgoing activity of the soul during its existence from birth to death and everything contained in the idea of reincarnation and in that of karma — the working of causes from earlier lives into the present one, and of the causes we are now creating to take effect in our next life on Earth. We must think of the human soul as enmeshed in this whole web of causes, bound up during its present life with all it has experienced in earlier stages of existence, and with all it has still to experience in future lives. Hence a study of the present life of the soul can lead to an outlook on the past and also on the future. If we do not take eternity as an abstract idea, but consider the human soul perceiving in itself its own being, then we come to something which could lead us to a true perception of the nature of eternity. For — to take a comparison — are we not more likely to discover what a chain is by examining it link by link rather than in its whole length? This latter method would mean tackling directly the study of eternity as such, whereas with the first method we consider the single life of a human soul as just one of the links in a whole chain representing for us the complete life of the human being throughout earthly existence.
Now it is true that anyone who looks for an assurance about eternity generally concerns himself with the present time. The lectures previously given here have shown from manifold aspects how, when a man surveys his life of soul, he repeatedly finds that all that takes its course there converges ultimately towards one central point which he calls his ego. Indeed, when we look around, at the philosophical thinkers of today, we meet with frequent indications that the only way of coming to any conclusion about our own being is by considering the nature of our ego; for it is the ego that holds together, as at a central point, everything experienced in our soul. Does it not seem, therefore, that all we experience in our heart, in our soul, in our thoughts, feelings and impulses of will, might simply arise and then pass away again? What, then, remains? To whose destiny do all those thoughts, feelings and will-impulses belong? It is this ego that proves itself to be the enduring central point. We are quite aware that if the experiences of our soul are not related to this enduring point, we can no longer speak of being an individuality. Yet, whatever fine things may be said about the ego by philosophers and thinkers, especially in quite recent times, their speculations about its nature are all open to one fatal objection. Intimately as we may come to know how this centre of our soul-life remains the same in all our conceptions, feelings and will-impulses, yet there is something able to wipe out this experiencing of the ego in normal consciousness; and this something is a constant reminder of how easy it is to refute all philosophical speculation about the endurance of the ego as normal consciousness knows it. This refutation consists in something we experience repeatedly every twenty-four hours: sleep. It is not only our thoughts, sensations and will-impulses that sleep obliterates, but also this central point, the ego. Hence, we cannot with truth speak of permanence in connection with the ego known to normal consciousness.
Nevertheless — as we have seen in previous lectures — it is possible for anyone to speak of the ego, not by focusing his attention on this central point to which he is at the moment relating his conceptions, moods of soul and will-impulses, but by considering something quite different. Here the question arises: Do we meet the ego among all the things experienced in the external world from morning till night? Anyone who asks this question without prejudice can say to himself: No, in all the experiences that come to me from the external world and make their impress on my conceptions, feelings and will impulses, no ego can be found. From nothing in the outer world can I derive the idea of the ego, yet it is there from the moment I wake until I fall asleep. What then can it be that lives in the flow of our concepts, states of feeling and impulses of will and is always to be found there, until sleep wipes it out? Since it is not to be found outside in the world, it must be sought in our own inner world. But our inner world is so constituted that we obliterate what we have in normal consciousness as our ego. Among the innumerable concepts a man is able to form, not one will really throw light on a fact of this kind, except the idea that the thought of the ego arising in normal consciousness and not received from any external source, is not a reality; for realities do not vanish as the idea of the ego vanishes in sleep. If, then, it is not a reality, what is it? Well, there is only one way of understanding it — by assuming it to be an image, a picture, but one outside the world of our experience and comprehensible only by comparing it to someone confronted by his own reflection.
Now suppose someone had never had an opportunity of seeing his own face; he would then be in the same position regarding his outward appearance as he is to his ego, which normally he always experiences as an image, never discovering its true nature. A man cannot see his own face from outside. Standing before a mirror he sees his face, but it is only the image of his face. If he looked around him what other reflections would he see? Tables, chairs, objects of that kind; but not everything around him would be reflected. Yet if he can say that there is something not in his surroundings, something which is a reflection for him alone — for nothing out there can be reflected in our consciousness in the way the ego is — it is then our own being which must experience the ego as a reflection, although in ordinary consciousness it is never directly perceived. Since it is a fact that nothing can be reflected that is not there, so, if a reflection of the ego is produced, the ego must be there, for the cause of the reflection cannot be anything else. A glance at general facts is enough to show the truth of that. We then have to say: As the ego is given to man only as a reflection, it may vanish in the way our face vanishes when we no longer look into the mirror. An image can disappear whereas reality endures and is still there, whether perceived or not. Anyone who wanted to question the truth of that would be forced to maintain that only what a man perceives exists in reality; but on following up this assertion he would soon be convinced of its absurdity.
Hence we must say: In the idea of the ego there is no reality, but the idea enables us to assume the reality of our ego. But how do we gain certain knowledge of the ego in ordinary life? We can acquire this knowledge by living not only in the present but also, through memory, in the past. If, on looking back to preceding days, weeks, years, even decades, to the point of time in our childhood where memory can take us, we could never link in one chain, as it were, all the experiences of our own inner life; it would indeed be impossible to speak at all of ego. What certain psychologists have said is quite correct: a man loses his ego, or at least consciousness of it, to the extent that the recollection of his experiences up to the time in question is wiped out. In so far as our memory fails, our ego breaks up.
We have frequently pointed out that a man is able, especially by thinking, to increase the backward stretch of his memory. Today, however, we will consider what effect it has when anyone experiences in memory not just a picture, of his ego, but his ego in its true reality. Were we simply to remember our experiences back to early childhood, there would be no great difference between that and the emergence of the idea of the ego at the present moment. Ultimately it is immaterial whether we experience the reflection of the ego while relating to this single point our present conceptions, sensations and impulses of will, or whether we draw them from the past. In both cases the ego with which we connect these experiences is but an image. Were we merely to relate our experiences to our ego, we should never, even in memory, discover its reality, for we arrive at that only by learning to know the ego in its activity, in its creative impulse; and this experience proves to us that this creative element, unaffected by the external world, maintains its activity even during sleep. What then is it that continues to live and weave within us while we are asleep?
Anyone who practises this looking back in memory seriously and without bias will say: In life I have gained knowledge of my experiences in a way that not only enables me to relate them to my ego, for it is undeniable that I have worked inwardly on my experiences, quite apart from anything external, and by so doing I have enriched them. Whoever is alive to the ripening and enhancement of life going on in his own depths knows that this cannot be due to any external reality, but to something at work within himself. Moreover, anyone who surveys life as a whole will realise that if we are to succeed in this enhancement of life, in this inner evolution, sleep is needed. We know quite well how lack of sleep creates havoc in our ideas, and to some extent lays waste our states of soul. We realise our need of sleep as a creative element, if what we experience and perceive in the outer world is really to contribute to the ripening of our inner life. By this means we become certain how it is not the ego we observe during the day that works upon us, but that behind this image stands its reality, always at work in us, even when we are asleep, for lack of sleep proves indeed to have a disturbing effect on the soul's progress. Thus, in the enhancement, the ripening, of the life of soul, we recognise the working of the ego. By acknowledging how disorganised we become if we do not sleep at the appointed time, when the ego should be released from its connection with the bodily nature and enabled to work in freedom — by knowing the lack of sleep to be an obstacle to the ripening of life, we come to be aware of the true ego working within us. We do not then perceive it as an image but as an inner force, ceaselessly at work in our life — whether we are awake or asleep.
There we have the first indication — penetrating straight to the reality — of the force that lives and weaves within us, quite independently of the world outside. On going more deeply into this inner experience, what do we find? Many of the details to be referred to today — including the following important fact — have been mentioned in former lectures. For it is a fact that we make a certain progress in life, that we become increasingly mature. But a remarkable thing comes to light: that all that is best in this maturity — everything that enables us to make the most progress in life and by means of which we can best observe the nature of the ego — is something that we can learn from our faults and shortcomings. When we have failed badly in some matter, or have done something which shows us how imperfect, how incapable we are, our very failure teaches us what we should have done. We have become more mature. By means of such opportunities in life — whether our thinking, feeling, willing or acting is concerned — we develop our wisdom, our maturity. But we should go on to say: Through the wisdom and maturity gathered from life, which become an ever stronger inner force, we learn how — because we never meet the same situation a second time to learn once more from our faults — we must store up this all-important force, for we shall never by able to use it in this life again.
We see therefore that throughout our earthly existence we are continually storing up forces that find expression in our maturity. If a life has been well spent, these forces will have gathered their greatest strength by the time the gate of death is reached. We see that we have something living in us that cannot find an outlet in the external world. We live in our souls by being able to look back on the past: it is memory that holds together the threads of the soul. But out of this memory comes forth something that lives and weaves in us as inner ripeness of life; something appearing in earthly existence as a surplus force. The spiritual scientist need only apply a law that is valid for all ordinary science: the law of the conservation of energy. Any scientist, any physicist, will accept this law for the external world. It is universally recognised that, when a finger is drawn lightly across the surface of a table, even this slight pressure is transformed into warmth. Hence we say that energy can be transformed, can go through a metamorphosis, but can never vanish away. Once we have consciously experienced that in the ripe content of our life we have stored up forces which at first cannot be used but are tested to their utmost when we pass through the gate of death, then it should not be difficult to understand that these forces, brought about by the activity of the ego independently of the body, can never be annihilated. Hence the bodily sheath, which contributes nothing to our ripeness in life, can be cast off and revert to its elements, but these forces remain intact. Because in them we have the active ego as powerful centre, the ego is present also in the ripened forces of life when the human being passes through the gate of death. This may be contested by those disinclined to apply to the spiritual life the laws of ordinary physics; but they should be aware that they run into an inconsistency directly they rise from the truths of ordinary physics to the reality of the spirit. We only need common sense in order to follow what Spiritual Science tells us, that when we go through the gate of death there lie, deep within us, stored up forces acquired in life, forces which, exerted to their utmost, in a world differing from that of the physical body, have then to work with the greatest intensity. After death these forces have to work on in a world which must obviously be presupposed, and there these forces, that is, the inner nature of man, permeated and strengthened by the ego, continue to live when man is free of the body. Thus our ordinary intelligence gives us some idea of life after death — not only showing in general terms that there is such a life, but also describing the forces which play into it.
When, however, Spiritual Science goes on to speak in more detail about life between death and rebirth, this naturally causes laughter among those who believe they are standing on the firm ground of ordinary science. This can well be understood by the spiritual scientist, for he knows that neither their laughter nor what they say depends upon reason and evidence but upon the way they think, which makes it impossible for them to acquiesce in what the spiritual scientist, as a result of his researches, is able to say about life after death. They are bound to find it ridiculous, or altogether fantastic, the figment of a dream. You know how Spiritual Science shows that a man, having passed through the gate of death, meets first with a phenomenon only occasionally arising in life — though this does sometimes happen and has, in fact, been repeatedly observed. This first experience is a quite unemotional looking back over the course of his earthly life. I say expressly that in this survey neither feeling nor emotion has any part; the whole panorama of his last life on earth passes quickly before him as if in pictures. This can be experienced in ordinary life if anyone has a shock, such as being nearly drowned, but without losing consciousness — for if that is lost the phenomenon does not occur. Those, however, who have had some great fright, endangering their life, have experienced this backward survey. That much is conceded even by the natural scientist whose research is confined to the external world. I have already reminded you how the distinguished criminologist and anthropologist Moritz Benedikt, having been nearly drowned, spoke of experiencing this backward survey of his past life. From such a natural scientist the spiritual scientist can learn a good deal, and willingly, although today in this sphere his kindly feeling will not be reciprocated.
Now what occurs when anyone experiences this sudden fear of losing his life? For a moment, though retaining consciousness, he ceases to use the external organs of his body. During the experience he loses the power of seeing with his eyes, of hearing with his ears; he is torn away, as it were, by his inner being from the physical body and from ordinary life, but without loss of consciousness. The fact that he is able to have this backward vista of his present life is proof that, when he thus looks consciously into his own depths, all that arises in his memory must be attributed to his inner being. For he retains his memory when thus torn from his physical body. Anyone experiencing a violent shock of this kind must realise that whatever it is which fills him with memories goes with him all through life but has no connection with his outer sense organs. Hence we must say that man is united with some more delicate soul-vesture that is the bearer of his memories, although at such a moment it is lifted free from his bodily organs. Obviously he cannot be asleep, for then it would be the usual thing in sleep to have this backward survey. So it follows that during a fright of this kind he has within him something not present in sleep.
This confirms what Spiritual Science has to say — that in sleep a man goes out with his soul from the physical body, leaving behind the bearer of memories, the vesture upon which he is working throughout his life, so that his memory-pictures can be preserved. In sleep he is outside the physical body, and also that external vesture of the soul, called in Spiritual Science the etheric body, which in ordinary sleep remains bound to the physical body. At the moment of death, however, this etheric body, which is also the activator of life, leaves the physical body, and only this outer physical shell of the human being remains. Death indeed comes because the etheric body, though present in ordinary sleep, is no longer there.
Hence, for a short time after death, the same phenomenon occurs as during a terrifying shock in ordinary life — a backward survey in memory.
Now, as the facts show, this survey experience is bound up with something so closely connected to the physical body that not even sleep can break the link. After death a man takes with him something that belongs not to his innermost soul but, in a certain sense, to his physical body. Spiritual Science shows that within a relatively short time — a few days only — after the discarding of the physical body, the human being becomes free of the etheric body and is then constituted in the main as he is during sleep. But Spiritual Science goes on to show how the inner soul-being is then in a situation different from its situation during life, when every morning a man has to return to his physical body and etheric body. He is closely bound to his physical body, to everything that enfolds him, and this does not specially belong to what we recognise as the real content of his life of soul.
If we are clear that during the whole of a man's waking life he is wearing out his physical body and that life in the daytime has fundamentally a destructive effect — as indeed we realise when we get tired — it will be evident that since in the morning we are able to go on consciously with our work, the destruction can be made good during the night. So, whereas in our waking state we are working all the time destructively on our bodily organism, at night, on the contrary, we are engaged in repairing the damage by replenishing our bodily vigour. We are then carrying out an activity beyond the range of consciousness. Directly we revert to any degree of consciousness, there arise those strange dream pictures that are so closely related to life in the body. We need remember only how bodily ailments may sometimes find expression in these pictures, showing where consciousness is involved. Since after death the physical body disappears, no effects of exhaustion have to be made good. Hence the forces expended during sleep on the physical body withdraw again into the soul after death, enabling it, free of the physical body, to use them for itself; and between death and a new birth they become the soul's consciousness. In proportion as the soul is freed from the physical and etheric bodies, with everything belonging to them, so does another consciousness arise, one that is not engaged in work on the physical body and for that reason unable to be aware of itself.
All this will seem to be nothing but a set of assertions. However, apart from the fact that reference can be made to the methods given in my book, Knowledge of the Higher Worlds, life itself can draw attention to those things. For how does a man's life take its course in face of death? If we follow up the way in which thoughts and memories arise in us, what has been said becomes evident to the soul. We can precisely and repeatedly recall our past experiences as memory-images, but we remember very little of all we have gone through in the way of feelings and sensations, and in the exertion of our will. Who would deny that, when some painful experience comes back to him in memory, he recalls the pain in his thought but without feeling over again the pain itself? Many other things there are, too, experienced in our heart and soul, which are not felt again. But they live on withal us in a different form, to the point of making themselves felt in our whole disposition, so that afterwards this is made up of everything we have experienced in pain and sorrow, or in times of joy and pleasure. Who can fail to realise, on looking with inquiring sympathy at someone of an obviously despondent, melancholic disposition, that the experiences he has gone through in heart and soul have been drawn down deep within him, there to remain, though perceptible to an observer in this particularly melancholy guise? It is the same with the sanguine man and his joyful response to life. It can be said that our experiences are divided between those we can always recall and those that remain below, working on us and ultimately appearing in the very life of our body. If we look thoroughly at this, we become convinced that our thoughts and concepts are so weak, so lacking in colour and life, because the emotional shading, the particular mood of soul pervading the thought as it was experienced at the time, has been suppressed and is working below the level of consciousness, leaving thought empty of feeling.
When the whole course of life is observed impartially, however, this relationship between feeling and will on the one hand, and thought on the other, can be seen to change. Thus at a certain time of life a man will repress the feelings and impulses connected with his thoughts, whereas at another time he will keep them more together. Youth is the period when we are most apt to yield over our joys, sorrows and impulses of will to our subconscious. It is then that we are most easily inclined to send down to the subconscious the experiences of heart and soul that will eventually work into our whole disposition — even into our bodily condition. But as the body becomes more firmly knit, the elements of our consciousness come to be less and less like what they were, with the result that we are less and less able to work on the subconscious, and our feelings and will impulses come by degrees to remain bound up with our thoughts. When with genuine self-knowledge a man observes life, he feels, as he grows older, how in youth a person sends down most of his moods of feeling, so that they live on in the make-up of his body. But the more rigid and dried-up a man becomes later on, the more do these experiences and the impulses of will not exhausted in action, remain united with his thoughts. Thus we see how, in this respect, the inner life is enriched as we approach death. We see how the bodily organism gradually dries up and becomes less capable of absorbing the soul's experiences, whereas, if we continue to learn from life as though from a school, the soul will become more alive, more mature. For this reason all that in youth is connected with ideals, ideas, even with mere concepts, flashes through our unconscious being, lays hold of our blood, our nervous system, and settles there, in order later to emerge as our capability for living — or the reverse. Later on we feel that our blood will no longer be, is no longer in harmony with our enthusiasm for ideals. Because of our wrong methods of education this feeling is now to some extent repressed, but in future it will belong increasingly to the best things and blessings of life. For when we are approaching the winter of life, the feelings and impulses that in earlier years we gave over to our bodily organism will add to our strength of soul, no longer being able to pass down into the body on account of the resistance they meet with there.
Bearing this in mind, we shall say: If we look into our own inner being we find how, on approaching the gate of death, it becomes ever richer. The contention that a man weakens with age is not valid; it originates in materialistic habits of thought and prejudices. In proportion to the decline of the body, the inner life of the soul gains vigour, becoming inwardly more childlike; we see a kind of approach towards those forces which are at their highest tension when we are nearing the gate of death. This is particularly true of people who are enabled, through the training indicated in the book, Knowledge of the Higher Worlds to have some perceptive experience independently of their bodily organs. It is also described there, how, by means of meditation and concentration, we can so school ourselves that experience and knowledge of the spiritual world can become absolute reality for our souls. At the same time the soul knows with certainty that this experience is acquired with no help from eye or ear, or from any bodily organ, for it is then outside the body. In a case of this kind, feeling and will-impulses must permeate livingly a person's meditation and concentration: thought alone is not enough. In Knowledge of the Higher Worlds there is an exact account of how the person must not lose touch with his feelings and perceptions — with everything, indeed, that in youth withdraws into the depths of the soul. He has to meditate and concentrate with his mind, but his thoughts must be fired by his heart and soul, and infused with life by those impulses of will that are then not transformed into action but into thinking.
When a human being has developed the genuine clairvoyance appropriate for our times, he wins through to what otherwise would be experienced only after passing through the gate of death. All such clairvoyance, however, is experienced by him in such a way that he is aware of the following distinction: ‘I can certainly experience’, he says to himself, ‘a spiritual world, a world where men live between death and rebirth, for I live with them there. But all my knowledge of it I gain by simply perceiving it. The difference between me and these souls is that I perceive all this without being able to work and create in it.’ The soul is aware of this distinction, but it derives only from being closely linked to the physical body, for directly the clairvoyant consciousness is freed from it and from the etheric body, there follows a release of those forces which, while they are held in tension by the physical body, permit the seer to gain perceptive knowledge of the spiritual world beyond the gate of death. It is these forces which are pre-eminent in a man during the time between his death and rebirth. What the clairvoyant experiences is like the force of a drawn bow. He can use it only for perception, but directly the tension is released the bow springs at once into movement. So it is for the clairvoyant when he goes over from life in the physical body to life in the world after death. And he can say to himself: ‘I am able only to perceive the spiritual world, only to see what is going on there. But after death, the body having fallen away, forces are set free, just as they are with a bow when the arrow is shot off.’ These forces are available in a man's soul for other activities after his death until he is reborn. This is the period when he can look on his past earthly existence, and can then work upon his next incarnation, when he will wake to a new life on Earth. It is not only by looking at the matter in this light that we can furnish evidence for it. We can obtain satisfying evidence — though not a mathematical proof — by turning to nature. In the growth of a plant we see how leaf after leaf develops until the blossoms unfold: how these blossoms are fructified and seed develops from the fruit. Then the plant withers away. But does its force then come to an end? No, on the contrary: at this very time the forces which call the whole plant back to a new cycle of life are at their strongest. They are now inwardly concentrated at one point, as it were, and they appear again in a new form when the seed is sown in the earth. We then watch the whole plant being renewed; the beginning and the end of its life are thus united. In like manner the highly concentrated forces in ourselves when we pass through death are united with those seen at the outset of life on Earth. We see how the human being as an infant sleeps through a sort of twilight condition into life. This condition gives free play for work on the body, and this is carried out in such a way that the bodily organs harmonise with the life of the soul. It would be a sad pity if anyone wanted to maintain that the ego is not active until self-consciousness begins. No, its activity begins long before that, and afterwards the human being has only to turn its forces to the building up of consciousness and memory. Before this the forces of the ego are already working on moulding the bodily organs so that the still soft and pliable body shall be skilfully made ready to harbour the coming consciousness. Hence we see how the ego is engaged in its greatest work of art at the outset of a person's life, and this shows that he is already in possession of active forces when his memory begins to develop. if we observe the human being quite impartially, we see how he comes to relate himself to the world in his own individual way, and how his undefined features and faculties gradually take form. Finally we see how the force which had previously passed through the gate of death in a concentrated form, in readiness for building up a new body, is now actually at work on it, so that the human being can enter his new body bearing with him the fruits of his former life. In this way the ego proceeds from one earthly life to the next. By actively enhancing the life of a soul, it proves to be endowed with those potent forces which — after continuing to increase until death — maintain their activity during the time between death and rebirth in such a way that the ego can imprint them on another earthly incarnation.
Hence we see how we ourselves are responsible for the causes which take effect in our next life, since this life is the continuation of the one before; and we see how each link in the chain joins on to the next. We have only to compare this with Buddhism to see how modern Spiritual Science, speaking from an evolutionary standpoint based throughout on clairvoyance, can accept the good thought in Buddhism while rejecting the other. Buddhism is the last fruit of a primeval culture dating from the times when primitive clairvoyance was a natural gift, directly experienced, and when therefore the idea of repeated earthly lives held good. At the same time Buddhism maintains that everything working over from a man's former life, and gathered together as the ego of his present life, is merely a semblance. Fundamentally, Buddhism knows nothing of the true ego, but only of the ego we have spoken of as an image. Hence it says that our ego passes away like our body, like our sheaths, and our former experiences. All that the Buddhist recognises as playing over from the preceding life into the present one, are deeds — Karma. According to Buddhism, these deeds combine into a pattern which, in each new life, evokes the semblance of an ego, so that no real ego, but only a man's Karma works on from one life into the next. Hence the Buddhist says: the ego is mere semblance, Maya, like everything else, and I must endeavour to overcome it. The deeds of my former life, now forming a pattern as though round a central point, seem to be an ego, but that is an illusion. Therefore I have to wipe out all that Karma has thus brought into my life.
Spiritual Science says the opposite: that the ego is the concentrating deed of Karma. Whereas all other deeds are temporal and will be compensated in time, this karmic deed, that makes a man conscious of his ego, is not temporal. With ego-consciousness therefore, something enters in that we can describe only by saying — as we have done today — that its existence is rising continually to a higher level; and that when we re-enter earthly life we form ourselves again round the ego. The Buddhist, on the other hand, obliterates the ego and recognises nothing but Karma, which, working on from one life to the next, creates a fresh illusion of an ego. Adherents of modern Spiritual Science, however, for whom Karma and ego do not coincide, say: ‘My ego passes on from its present stage on Earth, with the enhancement thereby gained, to re-appear later in a further incarnation, when it will unite itself with the deeds then performed. When as an ego I have done something, it remains with this central point, and goes on with all my deeds from incarnation to incarnation.’
That is the radical difference between Spiritual Science and Buddhism. Although they both speak in a similar way of Reincarnation and Karma, it is the ego itself that progresses from one life to another and shapes our inner life of soul. When we contemplate this progress, we find it leading us back in each existence to some point in early childhood before which we recall nothing, relying on what is told us by parents and others. Then, at a certain point of time, memory awakes, but we cannot say that the forces of memory were not previously in us; they were definitely there, at work on our inner life. Evolution itself depends upon our memory arising at a certain point in our early life. Moreover, Spiritual Science shows that, just as memory awakes at a certain time in childhood, so it is possible for a man, by raising his consciousness to ever higher levels, to remember not only his immediate past but also his previous lives on earth. This is a fact of evolution which is at present evident only to clairvoyant consciousness. It is in full agreement, however, with what can be learned by other means. When a justifiable objection to reincarnation is said to be that people cannot recall their previous lives the answer is: Just as our ordinary memory is a reality, although we cannot recall our past experiences from the time before that faculty developed, so a memory that can look back to earlier lives must also be first developed. In this way memory becomes an ideal of evolution, and we have to admit: As a child I had to develop a memory for my present life: I must now go on to develop memory for previous earthly lives. Thus we arrive at the comforting fact — though narrow-minded people will certainly not be in sympathy with it — that many ideals lie ahead still for mankind, besides those derived from ordinary consciousness; and these others include a striving for the power to recall past earthly lives. But I repeat that this is not a matter on which philistine souls can be in accord with Spiritual Science. Only recently I was reading a statement by a man held in great esteem today, in which he advanced the opinion that it would never be possible for human reason to solve all the riddles of the universe — nor would this be desirable, for if all the riddles were solved there would be nothing left for us to do on Earth. Evidently he cannot conceive of evolution progressing beyond its present stage, bringing men new faculties for new tasks, nor can he imagine that what is for people's ‘good’ changes with the enhancement of their consciousness.
One of the blessings flowing from Spiritual Science is that it opens out a perspective which does not lead off into vagueness. We have no occasion to complain of looking ahead into empty time. All eternity lies before us. We can see how each link of the whole chain joins on to the next link and we can say to ourselves: You bear in you now the forces acquired in this present life, and with them you are building a future existence when there will be opportunity for you to develop these forces further. Thus, little by little, we experience how real the thought of eternity becomes, how it spreads out before the soul as a vast, everlasting perspective. One of our gains from Spiritual Science is that we no longer ask the abstract question: What is eternity? — nor do we receive a merely abstract answer, for by truly studying human life we see how eternity arises, how each link in the whole is formed, and all abstract considerations are thus driven from the field. The reality then shows — as reality always must — how everything is built up out of single parts, member by member. Thus Spiritual Science points to the nature of man's soul as throwing light upon the nature of eternity and on the way these two are connected.
If now we turn to the second objection, to which perhaps even a personality such as Lessing gave credence, someone might say : ‘On these lines my destiny becomes clear to me, but if I am to suppose that I prepared it for myself through my Karma, this makes it even more painful, for then I would have to blame my shortcomings on myself.’ In the light of Spiritual Science, however, this idea can be transformed. Before our last birth we chose to have the misfortune that now befalls us: by seeking it, and especially by overcoming it, we acquire full capability of which, previously, we could not realise our need. In our disembodied state we became convinced of our need, and only by steering our way to this misfortune do we fit ourselves for rising to a higher level. Thus, through karmic law, the school of life proves to be the bringer of good fortune; and misfortune is seen to add strength to the ideal of eternity.
There is no time now to show how our earthly bodies are continually changing their original form; and how, when the Earth comes to an end, it will be succeeded by another kind of existence. Hence our present lives on Earth do not cover the whole of human existence; they too have had a beginning. Whatever a human being has acquired during repeated lives on Earth will avail him for other forms of existence. In studying the earthly it is enough to consider the essence of the human soul. That is how we can learn that eternity does not begin only after death, for it can be discerned already in the nature of the embodied soul.
Spiritual Science, therefore, raises from the past to a new and higher level something that was foreseen to a certain extent and even investigated by searchers after the spirit in days gone by. Hegel was right in saying, that eternity could not begin for the soul only at death, but must be inherent there during its earthly existence. Here is something on which Spiritual Science will throw more and more light, with a clarity so permeated by feelings and impulses of will that it becomes the very elixir of life — something that has always been thought of as an essential part of the being, the nature, of the human soul. So I can now quote an old saying which, though not summing-up the content of this lecture, is in harmony with its character. It was uttered in the third century after Christ by the great mystic and philosopher, Plotinus, who meditated deeply upon the nature of time and eternity — upon everything, in fact, that forms the basis of what we have been considering today:
Eternity is not bound up with the soul and spirit of man's essential being as a merely fortuitous characteristic, but is a necessity for the nature of the human soul. Neither is Eternity a fortuitous characteristic of the spirit.
Eternity belongs to the spirit, is in the spirit, comes forth from the spirit.
Eternity lives through the spirit.