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The Rudolf Steiner Archive

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The Christian Mystery
GA 97

XXIII. Karmic Law as Outcome of Active Life. Causes of Sickness and Heredity

14 March 1906, Stuttgart

Today we'll consider the law of human karma in detail. You know that it takes effect in successive human lives. No discussion of this law, however accurate, can of course be complete, for the occultist is obliged to speak not of hypothetical instances but of experience gained in this field, things of which he has certain knowledge, for example by observing a particular person and the way he was, and following him through his different lives. The question we would ask is how a life's destiny arises, the position someone has in life, his character, inclinations, habits and so on. One person is born with a vehement character, easily moved to anger, another as a mild and gentle individual. One is granted a kind destiny, the other is continually embattled. Trouble and cares are his lot.

In the first place we must consider the different bodies of the human being and ask how karmic causes affect the physical, etheric and astral bodies. Let us begin with the physical body and the things that happen through it. It is above all the agent for our actions in the world, since anything we do happens through movements done by the physical body. Our outer destiny for the next incarnation will depend on these actions of ours. The actions our physical body has performed in earlier lives will determine if we are poor or rich, born in one place or another, in one kind of environment or another. If we do bad things we'll be born in a bad environment; good things will give us a good environment. That is the first law.

Now to the second law. We'll find it easiest to understand if we go back to our own childhood. We'll all find that we have taken in many new concepts and ideas since then and have learned a great deal. Having found our way to the science of the spirit, for instance, we have gained many new concepts just because of this. Just think how much we learn through it and what new trains of thought it engenders! The content of anything we learn and take up into our life of thought arises because of the astral body. Changes occur in it, and since it is the most tenuous and subtle of the human bodies, it also responds most rapidly to any influence. It is not only our ideas and concepts that have changed since childhood, however. Our inclinations, habits and character have also changed. We recall that these last-named qualities developed in the child under the influence of the ether body.

Because the ether body is much denser than the astral body, these habits are much more tenacious and persistent; if one does not deliberately set out to change them they'll persist for practically the whole of life. The ideas and concepts we take up change the astral body in giant strides compared to the slowly changing character traits, which thus also mean only gradual changes in the ether body. We may compare this to the two hands of a clock, with the big hand moving fast, the small hand more slowly. That is how it is with the rapid changes in the astral body and the slower changes in the ether body.

Changes in the physical body, which is the coarsest of them all, are of course even slower; it works most slowly of all. We'll hear on the other evenings how initiands learn to work on their astral and ether bodies and finally also their physical bodies at a faster rate.179Ancient Indian symbol. See lecture Rudolf Steiner gave in Dornach on 10 September 1923. Typescript lecture Z-286,‘On the origin and meaning of cults’, Rudolf Steiner House Library, London. Ultimately they will reach the point where they can change their pulse beat. Of course we have not got that for today, for anything we learn in this life will only produce the relevant changes in the next life. The change which the astral body undergoes in this life will appear in the ether body in the next incarnation, for it will influence its configuration. We have to work on our habits now in preparation for the next life, so that we shall then have the effect. Someone wishing to be born with a good memory in the next life should make every effort to recall everything as far as possible, calling to mind everything that happens in life. Thus he should recall at night what he has done that day, and then also what he did and what happened yesterday, a month ago, last year and in past years. That is how we can train our memory. People who rush through life heedlessly will be born with inclinations that will make it impossible for them to retain anything they come up against in life. One may, of course, sometimes be forced to rush; I only said what I've just been saying with reference to superficially skimming across everything in life.

We all know the temperaments. A choleric with his strong will and the desire to do a great many things which is apparent even in childhood, wants to dominate, to set the tone. He is courageous, bold, keen to act. Napoleon, Caesar and Hannibal were cholerics. A melancholic child will isolate himself, on the other hand; he is distrustful, would really like to keep all his things under lock and key, and when his friends leave the house he'll check that they have not taken anything with them. He concentrates on himself. This is a contemplative individual, not a man of action. A phlegmatic child shows no particular interest. He will go into anything, in a way, but nothing makes much of an impression on him. He is a dreamer, inactive, seeking to gratify his senses. Someone with a sanguine temperament will take an interest in something, but this will not last and soon be gone. However, we cannot classify people according to the different temperaments.

Everyone usually has one basic temperament, but the others come into it as well. The four temperaments come to expression in four different ways in the ether body, and give the astral body four different background colours. The melancholic temperament will emerge in the next incarnation of someone who tends to live within a calm, narrow compass, concentrating on himself. Someone who has come across many things, got to the bottom of them and seen a great deal of life, including difficult times, will be born a choleric. Those whose lives have been pleasant, without any great struggles or demands, will be sanguine or phlegmatic. Anything that happens to the astral body in this life will in the karmic process become the basic tenor for the ether body in the next life.

In the schools where initiates are trained, this knowledge was and is consciously used to work on the different bodies, more so in the past than today. This has to do with cycles of evolution. Occult teaching is very different today from the way it was 5,000 years ago. Then work had to be done more on groups of human beings. The deliberate aim of the work was to enable whole categories of people to be in harmony in their next life. In India the whole population was divided into four castes, and the purpose of the work alone was to enable them to be a proper part of a particular caste in their next life. Systematic training was given to provide for millennia, to shape people's view of the world for millennia. This gave tremendous powers to the occult leaders. Now it has all changed. Progressive human evolution releases people from their groups or castes; they can no longer be educated in such wholesale fashion. Man will and must become more and more highly individualized.

How do human beings influence their ether bodies with a view to the next life? All inclinations and habits in the present ether body create the disposition for health or sickness in the next life. Any particular habits, both good and bad, now slowly developing in the ether body will crystallize in the next life into the person's good or bad disposition. Thus someone may seek to be industrious, or another may endeavour to let go of his anger. Someone else again may give himself up to drink, and this will weaken his will. Another gets more and more lazy, and so on. These things, which become part of the ether body in the course of a life, will come to expression in the physical body in the next life. A bad habit in one life is the cause of sickness in the next, whilst a good habit will of course be a cause of health. A particular passion will mean a particular disease in the next life. Here one would be able to see how someone acquires a disposition to catch infections. We know very well that some people can go to anyone, to any place where epidemics or infectious diseases prevail and will not be in danger of catching these diseases. Someone else picks them up from the gutter, as it were, catching them immediately. It all depends on the disposition if we catch things or not. Initiates know very well that the disposition to catch infections results from a highly developed egotistical acquisitive drive, a selfish desire to make material gains for oneself. Anyone who wants to get rich in one life, is doing himself harm where his next incarnation is concerned. This egotistical drive for material gain and riches is a property of the ether body that will show itself as a disposition to catch infectious diseases in the next life.

Anyone wishing to know more about health and sickness will, however, have to remember that many different factors are involved. The causes of sickness need not be due to individual karma. There is also a national karma where ill-health is concerned. This can be seen from the following observation. It concerns specific aspects in the health of races and whole nations. We all know the history of the tribal migrations in earlier times. We know that a number of tribes from the East—Huns, Mongols—migrated to Europe. They poured into the country, coming from Asia, and encountered the Germanic tribes. Those Huns, and the Mongolian race altogether, were late survivors of the Atlanteans—this is evident from the name Attila or Ath; they were remnants of that great race. The Germanic peoples, Persians and Indians were more advanced races, the Mongols Atlanteans who had remained stationary at a particular point and were now in decline. The main body of humanity was progressing but individual lower races like these remained behind, forming enclaves. The astral bodies of those late races contained decomposing astral matter. This did, of course, also come to us in large quantities. The Europeans faced the approaching hordes in fear and terror, and this fear and terror they felt made the decomposing astral matter thrive even more. Fear and terror are properties of the astral body that encourage such harmful influences. European astral bodies were infected, and in later generations this infection emerged as leprosy, the dreadful disease that had disastrous effects in medieval times. It was the physical consequence of the influence Mongol astral bodies had had on European astral bodies. The channel, as it were, through which this influence poured into European bodies was the fear and terror the Germanic peoples felt when those wild hordes poured across the borders into their countries. Here we can see how diseases arise as national karma, being passed on from generation to generation. The ancestors had known the disease in mind and spirit, in later generations it became physical. This is the meaning of the words ‘visiting the iniquities of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation’.180Exodus 20: 5. We may take them quite literally, for they refer to this kind of national karma.

Religious source texts are altogether not taken literally enough. To begin with, people were naive, the way many country people are to this day. They would take the words of the Bible literally. Then people grew clever and took a negative view, throwing anything traditional overboard. That was the second stage. The third stage were our modern freethinkers who take it all to be symbolic. Bruno Wille would be an example.181Wille, Bruno (1860–1928), Writer, co-founder of the Giordano Bruno Association. See Rudolf Steiner's reference to him in The Course of my Life (GA 28). A great deal depends, however, on how clever such an individual is, for one of them will find an even better symbol than the other and feel he must let the world know that this is the one and only one. Other meanings are often read into the texts, rather than their true meaning. There is, however, also a fourth stage—the science of the occult. This teaches us to take the original source texts literally again and understand them. Having been naive to begin with, then a freethinker and seeing symbols, one finally becomes a student of the occult.

In considering the karma of sickness for individuals as well as whole tribes and nations, we found that something initially prepared for in mind and spirit will later emerge again in physical life. Let us therefore provide good education and make sure that people develop good habits, for that will also promote their health. Good inclinations help not only in the moral sphere but really and truly also one's state of health, for a bad habit will create sickness in the next life. The nervous tension which is really the most widespread disease today has arisen because of a particular attitude of mind at an earlier time. It would never have developed if the materialistic way of thinking had not gained such dominance in the world. If this way of thinking were to continue it would have a disastrous effect on the health of nations, taking humanity to the brink of insanity. Children would be born with tremors due to weak nerves, and increasing materialism would hold the threat of epidemic insanity, with people suffering real pain from any sensation they have. That is the terrible influence materialism will have at the physical level once it has infected people's minds.

This future prospect was the true reason why the occult guides of the human race found it necessary to let part of the treasury of spiritual truths go out into the world. For the coming generations can only be given a sound new foundation for health if a spiritual view of the world, free from the bonds of materialism, helps them to look up to the highest streams of life for humanity, letting these enter into themselves. The reasons why our spiritual scientific approach is being put forward today are much more profound than some would think. With it and through it each can do his part in helping humanity to regain health. The term ‘nervous ’ had quite a different meaning in the past. It meant to be sinewy, muscular, strong, with nerves like ropes. The changing in its meaning is in itself evidence of something completely new having come into the world.

Let us now consider the question of heredity for the individual child, in both mind and body, and of karma. We know that traits are passed on, making a child similar to his father, mother, uncle, aunt or grandparents. One child may look like his father, the other like his mother. Musical gifts may continue through generations, for instance. The Bach family produced about 28 musicians in a period of 250 years, though only one of them became very famous.182The Bach family moved from Hungary to Thuringia in central Germany around the year 1590. The first Bach known to have been a musician was Hans Bach, who died in 1626. The great composer Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) was his great-grandson. Three of his sons, Friedemann (1710–1784), Philipp Emanuel, the ‘Berlin Bach’ (1714–1788) and Johann Christian, the ‘London Bach’ (1735–1782) were famous in their day. The last male scion of the family was Wilhelm Friedrich Ernst Bach (1759–1845), musical director in Berlin. And the Bernoulli family included eight great mathematicians.183The Bernoulli family of mathematicians went from Antwerp to Frankfurt in 1583, being dissenters, and finally to Basel. Two brothers—Jaques (1654–1705) and Jean, or Johann (1667–1748) were pioneers in differential calculus. Other well-known mathematicians were Nikolaus (1687–1759) and Daniel, the son of Jean (1700–1782). There are many examples of heredity playing an important role. We must however understand the true meaning of karma and reincarnation, for this alone will help us to understand heredity. The theory of heredity presented in materialistic science is only partly true, and much has been distorted. To be a great musician, for example, calls not only for musical gifts. These could not come into play if the soul were unable to incarnate in a body that has a musical ear. The excellent, finely structured organs of hearing are passed on from parents to children in a family of musicians. A human seed coming from the devachan and hastening towards a new incarnation will feel drawn to such a family, in which his musical soul can come into its own in well developed musical organs. Just as the pole attracts a magnetic needle, so is such a child born into a family where his individual talents find the best physical preconditions. Everything really comes together quite perfectly. An astral seed is drawn to a family that suits it physically. The commonplace saying that one should be careful in choosing one's parents is therefore not quite as nonsensical as it may sound. It is not that the child looks like his parents. He is born of parents who are most like him, and whom he loves even before this. The deepest love and sympathy arises even before birth, and the child feels drawn to his mother. Mother love is the secondary form of love, in response to the child's love which came before.

Such insights widen our horizons enormously. I hope I shall be able to make this even clearer in the lectures that are to follow. The more we progress, the more do we penetrate into all these questions. Some things are not that clear to begin with, but then one veil after the other drops away, and as time goes on we shall gain ever deeper insights. Knowing this we learn to say to ourselves that we'll be content to wait until the time comes when things that are now still under a veil for us shall also become clear. It is usually an advanced individual who will wait in patience until he is also able to take in higher things.