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The Rudolf Steiner Archive

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Rosicrucian Esotericism
GA 109

3. The Nature and Being of Man

Budapest, June 5, 1909

In the lecture yesterday I endeavored to give a general survey of the different manifestations and functions of the life of soul in the world around us. Today we will study the nature and being of man himself in greater detail, referring as well to a great deal of what is already known. We will think, to begin with, of facts connected with the nature of man that form part of the picture I was able to give you yesterday.

To begin with, in respect of his lowest body, the human being seems as if he had grown out of the first kingdom that surrounds us, that of the minerals. What immediately catches our eye when a man is standing in front of us, is the most tangible part of all, namely, his physical body. But the occultist knows that this is only one member of his constitution. It is easy to form an erroneous idea of this physical body when it is taken for granted that the physical body is what can be seen with the eyes and touched with the hands. That would be as mistaken as it would be to take hydrogen for water. The higher members of man's constitution are intermingled with his physical body. As it confronts us, this physical body is already permeated by the other members of man's nature, so that the structure of flesh and bones before us cannot without further ado be called the physical body. This physical body of man consists of the same substances and forces that are to be found in the mineral world outside, interwoven with consummate art in the structure of the human body. That this body looks and feels as it does is due to the fact that the other members of man's nature and constitution are mingled with it. The body of man seen by the eye is not, properly speaking, the physical body. The physical body as such is present when the human being has gone through the gate of death. The remaining corpse is the real physical body, the body freed from all the higher members of man's nature. When it is left to itself this physical body follows laws quite other than those followed until the moment of death. Before then, it has, in truth, been consistently repudiating the laws of physical chemistry. In earthly existence the body of man would be a perpetual corpse if it were not permeated by the etheric body that throughout life fights against the decay of the physical body. The ether or life body is the second member of man's being.

We will now take it for granted that both the plant and the animal have etheric bodies. Nevertheless, in a certain respect the human being differs from the animal in his etheric body as well, and it is this difference that is of particular interest to us. In what respect does the etheric body of man differ from that of the animal? First let us ask how clairvoyant consciousness is able to acquire knowledge of man's etheric body. To answer this question we must describe what clairvoyance is.

An individual who has developed a certain faculty of clairvoyance has also acquired such mastery of his mental activity that he is able to focus his attention upon or divert it from something with far greater strength than before. If you were to expect an average human being to be able to control his attention to the extent of suggesting away a physical form in front of him, you would find that it would be possible in the rarest instances. A clairvoyant, however, is quite capable of doing this. The space otherwise occupied by the physical body is then, for the clairvoyant, filled through and through by this etheric body. It has approximately the human form in the head, torso and shoulders, but the lower the area in the body, the less similar it is to the human figure.

The etheric body of an animal is different from its physical body. The etheric body of the horse, for example, extends far beyond its physical form. If you could see the etheric body of an elephant clairvoyantly you would be amazed at its gigantic proportions. In the case of the human form, the lower the level the greater is the difference between the etheric body and the physical form. Otherwise, in a certain respect, left and right correspond in the physical body and in the etheric body. The physical heart lies slightly to the left; the corresponding organ in the etheric body is the etheric heart, which lies to the right. The greatest difference, however, between the physical and the etheric body is that the etheric body of a man is female and the etheric body of a woman, male. This is a fact of great significance and many riddles of human nature are explicable on the basis of this finding of occult investigation. Thus, in the case of the human being there is a kind of correspondence, and in the case of the animal a great difference, between this second member of man's nature and the first.

Of man's astral body it is possible to have a much clearer idea. It is the third member of his constitution. The etheric body of man is a reality to one who is clairvoyant; to a materialist it is simply an illusion. Anatomists and physiologists investigate man's physical body only. But in this physical body there is something—the blood and nerves—that is much more closely related to man's consciousness. This consciousness is aware of his happiness, suffering and joy, all of which take effect in the space filled by his physical body. The bearer of these experiences is invisible to the individual concerned but it is visible to clairvoyant consciousness as a luminous cloud. This is the astral body. It differs greatly from the etheric body.

Movement in the physical body cannot be compared with the extraordinary mobility of the etheric body. In a healthy human being the color of this etheric body is that of the blossom of a young peach tree. Everything in the etheric body gleams and glitters in shades of rosy red, dark and light, becoming a radiant white. The etheric body has a definite boundary, although this fluctuates. The astral body is quite different. It displays the greatest possible variety of colors and changing forms, like a cloud floating by with ever changing movement. The colors and forms that appear in the cloud are expressions of the feelings and experiences that play between one human being and another. If a clairvoyant sees a bluish-red color in the astral body, he perceives love streaming between human beings, but another time he will also see the feelings of animosity that pass between individuals. As a man's activity of soul is constantly changing, so, too, do the colors and forms change in the astral body, appearing and disappearing in a multicolored play.

The fourth member of man's constitution is the bearer of the ego. Thus we have his physical body, which in external nature is comparable with the mineral, then his etheric body, which is comparable with the plant, and then his astral body, which is common to both animal and man. The astral body in man, however, is far more mobile than it is in the animal.

The ego bearer, the fourth member of man's nature, is seen as a kind of oval form, the source of which can be traced to the anterior part of the head. It is visible there to the clairvoyant as a bluish, luminous orb. A kind of bluish sheen streams out from this orb and passes into the human being. When, but not until, the clairvoyant can also suggest away a man's astral body, he is able to perceive the ego bearer. Man has the other three bodies in common with the mineral, plant and animal kingdoms of nature. But the ego bearer distinguishes him from these kingdoms and he becomes thereby the crown of creation.

In studying the fourfold nature of man we have actually been envisaging the dowry he has received from the higher worlds, no matter what his stage of evolution may be. The fact that he has the fourfold constitution of which we have spoken makes him man. Not until the “I,” the ego, works on the three bodies does his own task begin in the real sense. Whether the development achieved by a human being has reached a higher or lower stage depends upon how effectively he has worked upon the lower members of his constitution. The ego begins first of all to work upon the astral body. The effect of this work differs depending upon whether the individual concerned has reached only a low stage of development or is a highly evolved personality such, for example, as Schiller. The one has achieved less than the other in the process of transforming his astral body. This inner work upon oneself is known in occultism as purification, cleansing or catharsis. In this way the ego works at the perfecting of the astral body. In every human being, therefore, it will be found that the astral body is twofold. One part has been worked upon and purified, not so the other. Let us now suppose that the ego continues to work unswervingly upon the astral body. If this is the case, the individual concerned will gradually reach the stage of no longer having to force himself to do what is good, because it will become habit. There is obviously a difference when an individual is obeying a command, or has so much love in him that willy-nilly he will do what is good, meaningful and beautiful. If an individual is simply obeying a command, his ego is indeed working upon his astral body, but if doing the good becomes a habit, then the ego is working upon the etheric body as well.

To understand how the ego works upon the etheric body we will think of an example. When something or other is explained to you and you have understood it, then the ego has worked into the astral body. But if day after day you repeat a prayer, perhaps the Lord's Prayer, you are working into the etheric body because of the repetition every day; the soul is exercising the same activity over and over again. Repetition is an entirely different matter from a momentary understanding. We will clarify our minds as to how, in the latter case, the ego works upon the astral body and, in the former, upon the etheric body through repetition.

Think of the growth of a plant. The living seed produces the stalk and leaf after leaf; constantly new green leaves are added. This is possible because the plant is endowed with an etheric body and the underlying, active principle of the etheric body is repetition. Wherever repetition occurs, an etheric body is at work. The culminating feature of the plant, the blossom, is the product of a different principle, namely, the overshadowing astral body. Culmination, therefore, is brought about by astrality. This can also be observed in the structure of man's physical body. The spine with its numerous vertebrae is an expression of the etheric body in the physical body. Now think of man's head, of the brain. There you have the culmination, the work of the astral body in the physical stature. Spiritually, this is the same process as the manifestation of understanding resulting from the effect made upon the astral body; activity generated through daily repetition of the same prayer or meditative exercise is the product of work upon the etheric body. The essence of meditation is that through repetition it has an effect not only upon the astral body but also upon the etheric body. The reason why the effect made by the great religious teachers has been so dynamic is because they have imparted to humanity principles embodying a power that works ever onward. The etheric body of man is also twofold; one part has been worked upon by the ego, although in the average individual still to a limited extent, while the other part has not yet been worked upon at all.

There is still a third possibility for man. He can work from his ego into the physical body. This is the hardest task of all. Man has already worked continuously upon his physical body unconsciously, but not from his ego. This is possible only for the most advanced individuals.

We have thus studied the four lower members of man's constitution and have been made aware that three higher members are products of the transformation of the lower members as the result of the work of the ego. In this work upon the three lower members there is considerable difference in that it proceeds either consciously or unconsciously—unconsciously, that is to say, without the individual concerned being aware of it. The transformation occurs perhaps through the study and contemplation of works of art, pictures, and so forth, or through pious devotion and prayer. But these individuals are not conscious that they are working upon their astral and etheric bodies; conscious work begins at a comparatively late state. We have therefore to distinguish between conscious and unconscious work upon the lower members of man's being. His astral body is twofold; one part is the product of unconscious activity, the other of conscious effort. The part of the astral body that was worked upon unconsciously by the ego is called the sentient soul, which today is finished and complete in man. What was worked upon the etheric body unconsciously from the ego is the intellectual or mind soul. What has been worked upon in the physical body, unconsciously for long ages, is the consciousness or spiritual soul. Thus in man we distinguish physical body, etheric body, astral body and the ego. The ego, working unconsciously upon the astral body produces the sentient soul, upon the etheric body, the intellectual or mind soul, upon the physical body, the consciousness or spiritual soul. We have, therefore, spoken of six, or rather seven members present in man's nature because he has worked unconsciously upon his own nature and constitution.

Now the conscious work begins. What comes into existence as a result of it? Spirit self, or manas, is the outcome of what a man consciously instils into his astral body; what he consciously instils into his etheric body, but this is dependent upon occult training, is known as buddhi or life spirit. What happens if the ego eventually becomes able to work consciously into the physical body, to inculcate forces into the physical body itself? Through occult training this can actually be brought about consciously through the breathing process but there must be great caution and sensitivity of procedure, for through false methods of training such as are often given in public literature, a European body can be seriously harmed; knowledge of what is suitable for the constitution of a modern human being is essential. Through a conscious method of breathing the physical body can be transformed by the ego into atman or spirit man.

Man was a fourfold being when he assumed earthly form. In his first incarnation on earth he had already begun to work upon his own being through the ego. In the course of the following incarnations he has developed, unconsciously, the three functional aspects of the soul: sentient soul, intellectual or mind soul, consciousness or spiritual soul. We shall subsequently learn how the conscious transformation is achieved of physical, etheric and astral bodies into the three higher members. Meanwhile, you have heard how the sevenfold being of man evolves through the incarnations. The four members, physical body, etheric body, astral body and ego, form the so-called sacred quaternary that was revered in all occult schools and with which a sacred trinity was allied, consciously forming a sevenfoldness or tenfoldness. We have thus a picture before us of man who has within him everything that is out-spread around him but which he transcends by virtue of his ego bearer.

We will now study the human being in waking life and in sleep in order to learn how the bodies are connected. What is happening when joy and pain in a man are stilled, when his consciousness sinks into sleep? His astral body and ego are then outside his physical and etheric bodies. In the state of sleep something striking happens to man. In sleep at night he has descended as it were to the level of the plant by day. He has become a twofold being; his physical and etheric bodies remain in the bed and his astral body and ego are outside. You may now ask whether it can be said that man is a plant while he is asleep. No, but man and plant then consist of the same combination of bodies. On our earth a being with a physical body and an etheric body only is a plant. When an astral body and ego are present, the physical and etheric bodies change. In the plant there are no nerve strands, and it is only a physical body in which there is an ego, that has warm blood. The higher animals must be regarded as degenerate forms of the original man. In the physical body the ego comes to expression in the blood, the astral body in the nerves, the etheric body in the glandular system and the physical nature of man in his own body. If, therefore, the astral body is the creator of the system of nerves, which is actually the case, this system of nerves is in a doleful situation, for during sleep it is abandoned by its creator. Not so the glandular system, for the etheric body remains with it. But the blood system of the physical and etheric bodies is faithlessly forsaken by the ego during the night. The physical body can exist on its own, because the physical nature remains the same, as does the glandular system, since the etheric body remains in the physical body during sleep. The system of nerves, however, is forsaken by its master. We will now ask clairvoyant consciousness what is then happening in the physical body? To the extent to which man's astral body goes out of the physical and etheric bodies during the night, to that same extent a “divine-spiritual” astral body moves into the bodies lying in the bed. The same applies to the blood system; a divine-spiritual ego enters into it and provides for its maintenance. In the night, too, man is a fourfold being but beings of a higher order take possession of the two bodies remaining in the bed. When man's astral body and ego return in the morning to his etheric and physical bodies, his own astral body expels a being of greater power. The same happens in the case of the blood system. Man's ego drives out the divine-spiritual ego that has provided for the blood system during the night.

Divine-spiritual beings are present in our environment all the time. By day they must withdraw, just as we ourselves withdraw during the night. These divine-spiritual beings sleep by day, whilst human beings sleep by night. In the evening a divine-spiritual ego and a divine-spiritual astral body draw into the physical and etheric bodies of the man asleep in bed and leave these bodies in the morning. The process in man is exactly the reverse. In the evening he abandons his bodies and in the morning resumes possession of them. Even in religions a feeling has remained that the gods sleep by day. There are countries where the churches are shut at midday because the gods are then most deeply asleep.

We will now think about what is outside man's body at night, namely, the astral body and the ego. We know that desires, urges and passions are rooted in the astral body but during the night man is not aware of them. Why is this? It is because at the present stage of evolution man's astral body and ego have no organs that would make this awareness possible. Man as he is at present can perceive only by means of physical organs. There are around man as many worlds as he has organs to perceive them. If he has one organ more, a new world reveals itself to him. His astral body, if he has not yet become clairvoyant, has no organs, hence during the night he cannot be aware of anything. It is easy to imagine that during sleep he may be without senses. There are blind people and also people in whom other senses are lacking. No world is present for one who is unable to use his senses. Hence, in the morning, when a man can again make use of his physical senses, he becomes aware of the world around him. But at death it is different. Through the whole of life the etheric body and the physical body remain connected with each other; at death, the etheric body, for the first time as a rule, abandons the physical body. The moment of death is therefore described by those who have knowledge of the subject as the moment when a retrospect of the whole past life passes like a panorama before the human being. What is the explanation of this? It is because the etheric body is the bearer of memory and this memory now becomes free. As long as the etheric body is in the physical body it cannot unfold all its power but only as much as the physical instrument permits. Now, however, at death the etheric body becomes free of the physical body and can unfold what has been inscribed in it during life. This panorama can also arise as the result of a shock but in that case the man concerned must not lose consciousness as he does at death. The shock may be caused by danger of death. But this is an exceptional case.

Now you may ask how long this tableau lasts. The time varies a great deal in human beings. Speaking generally, it can be said that the tableau lasts for as long as the individual concerned could stay awake during life without being overcome by sleep—twenty hours, fifty, sixty to eighty hours. The extreme limit of time during which waking consciousness can be sustained is approximately that of the duration of this panorama. The retrospect persists for as long as this. Then it fades away and a clairvoyant sees how the etheric body detaches itself at the same time—not entirely, however, and that is the important point. The individual concerned takes with him an essence, an extract of his etheric body and with it the fruits of his last life. He ascends, retaining the essence of his etheric body, his astral body and his ego until he also lays aside his astral body. He has now laid aside two corpses, and then he passes into the spiritual world.

Tomorrow we shall study the life after death and the entry into the devachanic world.