[RSArchive Icon]
Rudolf Steiner Archive Section Name Rudolf Steiner Archive & e.Lib



Highlight Words

Death in Man, Animal, and Plant

A Lecture given
by Dr. Rudolf Steiner
Berlin, 29th February, 1912
GA 61

This is the 13th of 16 lectures given by Rudolf Steiner at Berlin, in the Autumn of 1911 through the Spring of 1912. The title of the series of lectures is: Human History in the Light of Spiritual Investigation. They were published in German as: Menschengeschichte im Lichte der Geistesforschung. The lecture was transcribed from a typescript version, and the translator is unknown. It is presented here with the kind permission of the Rudolf Steiner Nachlassverwaltung, Dornach, Switzerland. From GA# 61.

This e.Text edition is provided through the wonderful work of:
Various e.Text Transcribers
Book Cover Image

Search for related titles available for purchase at Amazon.com!


Lovingly typed and donated by an anonymous donor, this lecture has been made available to everyone.

DEATH IN MAN, ANIMAL, AND PLANT

A lecture given by Dr. Rudolf Steiner
29 February, 1912
Berlin

Translated by R.H. Bruce

In one of his works Tolstoi expressed surprise — one might almost say disapproval — that in exploring modern science he found every kind of investigation concerning the evolution of the insect world, concerning what seemed to him insignificant things in the organic body or elsewhere in the world, whereas he found nothing in science itself concerning the important, the essential things, concerning the questions which stir every heart. Tolstoi said that above all he found nothing whatever concerning the nature of death. From a certain point of view one cannot entirely disagree with such an objection to the modern scientific spirit, coming from so distinguished a source. Nevertheless from another aspect one may stress the point that, if such an utterance is meant as a reproach, it is indeed to a certain extent unjust towards modern science, and this for the very simple reason that modern science has long owed its magnitude and importance to that very sphere in which answers to questions connected with the nature of death have been sought in the main without success. On the basis of the conception of the world represented here, it is certainly not necessary to inveigh against deficiencies in modern science. We can admire in the very highest degree the splendid achievements, the truly significant successes, both in their own sphere and also with respect to their application in practical life and in human society; here the opinion has repeatedly been expressed that Spiritual Science has certainly no need to lag behind in any kind of admiration pointing in this direction. At the same time, however, the most important achievements of the modern scientific world stand on a footing that gives no foundation for those points of contact which must definitely be reached, when questions concerning death, immortality and the like, are to be examined. Modern science cannot do this, because from her starting point she has in the first place set herself the task of investigating material life. But wherever death intervenes in existence, we find, when we look more closely, the point of contact which draws the spiritual and the material together. Certainly, when these subjects are under discussion, there is no need to agree with the many cheap attacks on the efforts of modern science. Indeed, we may even say (and this, too, has been often emphasized here) that when the great questions of conscience are to be examined, we may — even as spiritual scientists — find ourselves with reference to the feeling of scientific responsibility and scientific conscience, more drawn to the procedure adopted today by external natural science — although it is unable to penetrate to the most weighty problems lying behind life — than to many facile explanations springing from dilettante theosophical or other spiritual-scientific sources. These often give — especially with regard to method — too easy answers to such questions as we are dealing with today.

Recently, indeed, some approach has been made from the standpoint of science, to the problem of the death of created beings. This has come about in a peculiar way. Apart from many separate attempts which have been made, analyses of which would carry us too far today, one investigator at least may be mentioned, who has handled the question of the nature of death in a significant book. This writer has adopted a strange attitude towards the question, so strange that we are obliged to say again, as we did in a similar case, concerning the explanations of the origin of man: as spiritual scientist one feels peculiarly placed with regard to modern natural science; for whenever one is faced with a fact, we find that precisely from the standpoint of Spiritual Science, we can fully accept this fact and can see in it strong proofs of that which Spiritual Science represents. Faced, however, with the theories and hypotheses advanced by the adherents of the present-day world conception, in a more or less materialistic or, as it is considered more elegant to say, in a monistic way, then indeed it is a different matter. Here, one feels that, sincerely as we may agree concerning the facts brought forward in modern times, we cannot always declare ourselves in agreement with the theories and hypotheses, which those who believe they are on the sure ground of natural science feel bound to construct on what is produced as natural-scientific fact.

The research worker who has written on the nature of death from the standpoint of his natural science has called attention to something very interesting, precisely in connection with Spiritual Science. This is Metschnikoff, the man who for long was Director of the Pasteur Institute in Paris. He seeks clarity — so far as it is possible to obtain it today — concerning the data, the actualities, which bring about the death of the living being. In the first place, when considering such a question, we must not take into account what are called violent deaths, though we may perhaps have occasion later to refer to these violent deaths brought about by accidents or otherwise. When, however, we discuss the question of the nature of death — Metschnikoff, too, draws attention to this — we must see it as established in natural existence, must study it as appertaining, so to speak, to the phenomena of life, must be able to bring the phenomena of life before our eyes in such a way that death belongs among them. So, then, the riddle of death can be solved only in the case of so-called natural death, which is brought about at the end of life, just as other natural processes are brought about in the course of a life. Since this is only an introduction to what is to be said about natural science, it is impossible to go into the interesting details of the arguments of the above-mentioned investigator and thinker. It must, however, be pointed out that in studying the actualities of life he calls attention to the fact that in the processes of life itself, in that whereby life is to some extent evolved and perfected, the naturalist really meets with nothing which could give a real reason why death, the annihilation of the being, encroaches upon life. By numerous examples, Metschnikoff seeks to show how whoever follows the course of life sees everywhere that death makes its appearance without our being able to give the ready explanation people are prone to give, when the span of life is drawing towards death; that this is brought about by exhaustion. This investigator calls attention to numerous facts which prove that although the processes of life continue, and continue in an unenfeebled condition so that there can be no question of exhaustion in life itself, yet at a certain point of time death intervenes; so that this investigator arrives at the — it must be admitted — extremely remarkable position in which fundamentally every death, every ending of life in the animal, vegetable or human kingdom is to be attributed to external influences — the action of certain enemies of life which, in the course of a lifetime, obtain the upper hand and which finally, fighting against life, work as a poison on it, and at last destroy it. Whereas, then, for this investigator, the organism itself everywhere shows signs that it does not actually come to an end through its own exhaustion, this individual expects to see — when death approaches — such enemies of life appearing in one form or another, as poison phenomena making an end of life. Here, then, we have before us a hypothesis of natural science — it is indeed no more than this — which, as it stands, traces every natural death to external influences, to the action of poison phenomena brought about by external living beings of the plant or animal kingdom which make their appearance as enemies of life and at certain moments destroy the organism.

Such an interpretation employs all means to come to some kind of understanding of the nature of death within the actual material phenomena. In pursuing such a course, the reasoner strives to ignore as far as possible the fact that the spiritual element may intervene actively and effectively in organic life, and that perhaps this spiritual element as such may have something to do with death as we meet it in the outside world. It is not unthinkable — although at first sight this must appear absurd to those who maintain a more or less materialistic or monistic attitude — that those very enemies which appear as poisonous forces in relation to the organism might be enlisted as necessary accompanying phenomena of the spiritual forces which permeate organic beings, strengthening and stimulating them on their path towards death. It would not be unthinkable that the powerful spirit which, on the one hand, is directed to use the organism as its instrument in the physical world, might, on the other hand, make it possible through its operations for those hostile forces to seize upon the organism and destroy it. — In any case, if we allow ourselves to be influenced by such an explanation as that just quoted, there is one thing we must not disregard; namely, that modern natural science with its interest in merely material phenomena actually makes the investigation of the death of the organism an easy matter. But in reality it should not make light of it. And this leads me to emphasize that it will not be easy for Spiritual Science — which, from our own day onwards, must make the effort to take its place in the evolution of mankind — to carry out investigations concerning certain questions so simply as those world conceptions often do which expect to be able to determine something about the great riddles of existence merely out of external material facts.

Hence, from the very outset attention must be drawn to the fact that from the way in which modern natural science observes phenomena, no real distinction is made by those who feel they are standing on its firm ground between death in the plant world, the animal world, and the human world. But what have these three in common except the destruction of an external phenomenon? This, however, they share, to all intents and purposes, with the destruction of a machine: the cessation of the connection of the parts. Looking only at the external phenomena it is easy to speak of death, insofar as this death may then be spoken of as uniformly similar in plant, animal, and man. We may see where this leads, by a case which I have often quoted to a number of the audience sitting here, but which is always interesting when the relation of science to such a question is being considered. I do not wish on an occasion like this to refer to the ordinary popular writings which make it their business to carry into wider circles the results natural science is supposed to have obtained; on the contrary, if the connection with natural science is to be established, I should wish always to point to the arguments of this kind accepted as the best. Here, then, with reference to this question, we have always the opportunity to point to a distinguished book which is at the same time easy to understand; namely, the “Physiology” of no less a writer than the great English scientist, Huxley, translated into German by Professor J. Rosenthal. In the first pages of this work the subject of death is dealt with in few words but in a very remarkable way, which shows us immediately how inadequate on the whole is the thinking — the judgment on such questions, not the research — of present-day science. T.H. Huxley writing on Physiology says something to this effect: The life of man is dependent on three things, and when they are destroyed death must supervene. Then he continues: If, in the first place, the brain is destroyed, or, secondly, the pulmonary breathing is stifled, or thirdly if the action of the heart is inhibited, man's death must ensue; yet, strangely enough (though one cannot be sure nowadays that this strangeness will be felt in those wide circles in which the habits of thought have allowed themselves to be influenced by materialistic wisdom), strangely enough, Huxley says that it cannot be stated without reserve that, if the three above-named functions of the human organism are inhibited, the death of the living human being must ensue. One might rather think that supposing the brain no longer functioned, if the activity of the lungs and heart could be artificially maintained, life might still continue for a time, even without the action of the brain. Whether this is felt to be strange is only a question of habits of thought; for, actually, we should say: The life of a man when he cannot use his brain in the physical world cannot for a human being really be called a continuance of life. It must be admitted that life is ended for a man when that for which he needs the instrument of his brain can no longer play its part. And then if by some means the activities of heart and lungs could be maintained, that might be approximately a continuance of life, perhaps in the sense of a plant existence, and, if one wished to preserve a completely open mind, one might speak of that death which must still take place when the action of the heart and lungs ceases, as of a plant death added to the former death.

To speak, then, of human death so open-mindedly can only be justified when death is imminent because the man can no longer make use of the most important instrument whereby he carries on his life in the physical world — in his actual consciousness. And the ceasing of his consciousness in the physical world, insofar as it is bound up with the indispensability of a brain, must, for the human being alone, be designated as death. How superficially such things are studied is amply shown by Huxley himself when, in those pages where he speaks of death, he draws attention to natural science having not yet succeeded in progressing in the same way as, in his opinion, what he calls “an old doctrine” progresses; namely, by following the spiritual, essential actualities of the soul, through its journeying in the further course of existence, after the passage through the gate of death. Not yet, remarks Huxley, can modern natural science follow up what it has to follow: the oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, and so on which compose the human organism, and which fall asunder when the man has passed through the gate of death. — Hence, this investigator considered that natural science could contribute something towards the problem of the meaning of death: that is, if the path could be followed which is taken after death by the materials composing the human organism during lifetime. And it is interesting and significant that, at the end of this first treatise on physiology by an important scientist, we find a reference to words which we can understand when spoken by the gloomy, melancholic Prince of Denmark, Hamlet — but which we should not have expected to find quoted when so serious a question is raised as the nature of death in the world. If we inquire into the nature of death in man, it is exclusively the destiny of the being of man that interests us. We can never be content with knowing the relation to one another of the various materials, the individual components, which have combined to form the exterior corporeality, so long as the essential soul and spirit of man made use of the external instruments. Out of his gloomy melancholy, Hamlet may say:

“Imperial Caesar, dead and turned to clay,
Might stop a hole to keep the wind away,
O that that earth which kept the world in awe,
Should patch a hole t'expel the winter's flaw.”

This the melancholic may say, and we understand it in its dramatic connection; but when the naturalist calls attention to the way the molecules and atoms once in the body of Caesar might go on living in some other being, it may be, as Huxley suggests, in a dog or in a hole in the wall; whoever is in real earnest feels in the depths of his thinking how impossible it is that such a thought should approach the great problems of the world riddles. — And this is no disparagement of natural science which has to accomplish its achievements on the material plane. It is only to point out how, on the one hand, natural science should perceive and observe its limitations, and should answer the questions about material processes and the destiny of substances, while, on the other hand, those students who wish — on what they can learn by conscientious research concerning the destiny of substance — to build up a world conception of such a problem as death, in essentials far overstep the boundaries of which they should be conscious, if they want to remain on the ground of external, material facts. As I have said, it is not so easy for Spiritual Science, because from its point of view it is necessary to examine separately the phenomena of what may be called death in plants, of what is called death in animals, and also, apart from these, what in particular constitutes death in the human kingdom.

No conception of death in the plant world can be obtained by studying plants as they are very often studied now; that is, by observing each individual plant as a separate entity. It would, of course, lead us much too far today to explain again in detail what has been already indicated in former lectures; namely, that Spiritual Science must regard the earth as a vast living being, of which the life principle has indeed altered in the course of evolution. Were we to examine the life principle of the earth throughout the ages, we should find that in the far-distant past, the earth was a completely different entity, that it has been through a process which has now led to the increased suppression of the life of the earth as a whole in favor of the individual life kingdom, in favor of the vegetable, animal and human kingdoms. But even in our present time, Spiritual Science cannot think of the earth as the merely physical combination of external substances, as it is regarded from the standpoint of modern physics, geology, and mineralogy. On the contrary, in all that is presented as the mineral basis of our existence, the ground which we tread, Spiritual Science must see something which, as the solid foundation of the whole earth organism, stands out just like, or similar to, the solid skeleton as it is differentiated from the soft parts of the human organism. As in the human being the solid skeleton inclines to become a kind of merely physical system, a merely physical aggregation of organs, so, in the vast earth organism we must regard what confronts us as physical and chemical in its action, as a kind of skeleton of the earth. It is merely separated off from the whole life of the earth, and everything which happens on the earth, everything carried out in the earth processes, must in the sense of Spiritual Science be considered as a unity. Thus, when we study plants individually, we are just as wrong if we ascribe to each plant the possibility of an individual existence as we should be if we looked at a single human hair or nail and tried to study it as an individuality. The hair or the nail has significance only, and its inner principle can only be recognized when it is studied not as an individual by itself but in conjunction with the whole organism to which it belongs. In this sense the single plant and everything vegetable upon the earth belongs primarily to the earth organism.

I must add this remark: The assertions thus maintained by Spiritual Science are to be recognized in the ways already specified in these lectures; so that we are not applying to the world around us the conclusions reached in the study of man himself. It is true it is often said that Spiritual Science presents occurrences in the universe after the analogy of processes taking place in man. We may indeed sometimes feel obliged for the sake of the presentation to make use of such analogies, because what the research of Spiritual Science perceives in the universe is illustrated and symbolized in the human organism; for the human organism primarily represents the connection of the bodily with the spiritual, and man is best understood when the connection between human and spiritual is made clear. That the earth, however, is an organism, and that what exists as a plant is embedded in the vast organism of the earth, belonging to it as hair and nails belong to the human organism, this, for Spiritual Science, is something not inferred by analogy, not at all the result of a mere deduction. On the contrary, it is the result of investigations by the spiritual scientist, along the lines described or indicated here, which can be pursued in detail in the book “Knowledge of the Higher Worlds.” — The essential in such research is that by it the investigator himself widens his consciousness, ceasing to live in himself alone, and that he is no longer influenced only by what the senses can perceive and the reason bound to the instrument of the brain can apprehend. The result of such research is that the man frees himself from the bodily instrument, that he becomes a participator in a spiritual world; then, in his own circle, in his spiritual horizon, he possesses not only what is presented to the external senses and the reason, but perceives the spiritual beings and spiritual forces. Thus, for the spiritual investigator, there exists what may be called the soul of the earth, a soul element giving life to the whole earth, just as the soul existing in man gives life to the human organism. The spiritual investigator widens his consciousness to a horizon where the soul element giving life to the whole earth comes directly under his notice. And then, for him the plant world is no longer merely the sum of the individual plants, for then he knows that what may be called the earth soul has to do with everything living and growing as a plant on the earth.

Yet the question is still: How are we to conceive that the plants begin and end their existence? How are we to picture, so to speak, the birth and death of a plant? We shall see at once that these words applied to the plant kingdom have, fundamentally, no more real significance than if we were to say, when a man's hair falls out that the hair is dead. Once a man rises to the thought that with regard to the earth he is dealing with an ensouled organism, he acquires a completely new outlook on the beginning and end of life in the plant world. To anyone not merely following the single plant individual purely externally, from seed to seed again, but rather bearing in mind the sum total of plant life on the earth, it will be obvious that here something different is at work from what may be called the beginning and end of life in the animal, or the human, kingdom. We see that the play of the elements in the course of the year is closely connected with the rise and decay of plants, with the exception of those which we count as perennials; but it is quite a different connection from that which exists, for instance, in animals. In animals we seldom find death so closely bound up with the external phenomena, as we see the withering of the plants bound up with certain phenomena of the whole earth nature when, for instance, autumn is coming on. In reality, people regard the life of a plant abstractly, detached from the fact that it is embedded in the whole earth existence; this is because they study only the single plant and do not consider the rhythmic, up and down undulation, of the life of the year, which at a definite time impels the germinating plants to sprout, brings them to a certain maturity, and, again at a definite time, causes them to wither. If we contemplate this whole process, externally sound observation, even if it has not penetrated the nature of Spiritual Science, may say: Here we are not dealing merely with the rise and decay of individual plants, but with the whole earth process, with something living and weaving in the whole existence of the earth. Where, however, do we find anything of which we can say that what it shows in its own phenomena explains how the invisible, spiritual element that we must think of as ensouling the earth is connected with the sprouting and withering of the plant? Where do we find anything at all which meets our spiritual eye so as to make this outer process intelligible to us?

Here it becomes evident to the spiritual scientist that he has something within himself to explain this living and weaving in the plant world, something which, if only it is studied in the right light, will account for the rise and decay of life in the plant world. We find in human nature what we call the ordinary phenomena of our consciousness. We know very well, however, that these phenomena can be experienced by the human being only during his waking day life, from waking up to falling asleep. The process of falling asleep, the process of waking up, are noteworthy incidents in human life. For what do we perceive? In falling asleep we become aware of a plunging of the whole inner processes of the soul into an indeterminate darkness; we are aware of the fading of our thoughts and ideas, our feelings and the impulses of our will into the darkness of sleep; at waking we become aware of the emerging of the whole of this soul content. Of this, man is conscious. Now it would doubtless be absurd to think that sleep has nothing to do with what exists as evolution of the consciousness in the whole human organism. We know how important regular, periodical sleep is for our physical life, insofar as spirit and soul live in it. We know what we owe to regular sleep. We have only to be reminded of what is constantly experienced by a man who needs a retentive memory. We say: If a man wants to avoid wearing his memory out, so that it becomes unserviceable, if he wants to keep his memory in good order, he must constantly sleep on the things to be remembered. If he has something very long to learn by heart it is clearly noticeable how much in the whole activity of remembering he owes to regular sleep. Apart from this, however, it appears quite natural that the weariness or exhaustion we notice as the result of our waking life is brought about by the life of our consciousness. By allowing the processes of our soul — our life of ideas, of feeling and of willing — to be overworked, we do violence to the delicate construction of our organism, as regards our will processes, even to the coarser parts. Quite superficial observation can teach us that tiredness of nerves, muscles and other organs is brought about solely by the encroachment into our organism of the conscious manifestations of our ideas, feeling, and will. We know quite well that if we give ourselves up to the ordinary musing of the day, where one thought gives place to another, the brain becomes less tired than if we set our thoughts to work under the compulsion of some method or doctrine. We know, too, that the muscles of the heart and lungs work throughout the whole of life without requiring sleep or rest, because weariness does not enter into this, since as a rule the organism evokes, in the unconscious or the subconscious, only appropriate activities. Only when we consciously encroach upon the organism do we produce weariness. — Hence we may say: We see the processes of the soul encroaching upon the life of the body — we see how what is active in the soul works itself out in our bodily life — in that which is evoked by the processes of the body which may be called normal — the activities of the heart and lungs and the other continuous processes of life. Here no weariness, no exhaustion, enters in. It is when conscious processes intrude that weariness enters. We become aware of a deterioration, a destruction of the organism through the encroachment of consciousness.

Here we have reached the point at which we can see the significance and function of sleep. What is worn out in the organism during the day, what is destroyed by conscious activities must, when the conscious activities are discontinued, be restored again in sleep. Here the organism must be left to itself to follow the processes inborn, inherent in it. Here we stand at the point where we can say: Again Spiritual Science coincides remarkably with what the facts of natural science tell us — even in the form adduced by the already-mentioned Russian scientist who was for many years Director of the Pasteur Institute in Paris. Now, can we not say that consciousness itself, man's spiritual life itself, causes — in order that it may subsist, that it may indeed be there at all — the exhaustion and weariness of the organism? And so, in order to throw a little light on this investigator's hypothesis, we might answer the question: Why, then, do the enemies of life described by him come into our organism? By saying: Because, fundamentally, the consciousness process always confronts what is merely organic life in man as a kind of poisoning process, and we could not rise to our higher spiritual life at all if we did not destroy the organism. In the very processes hostile to the organism lies the whole potentiality of our consciousness. When we speak of the effect of poison with reference to organic activity, we are bound to say: What we must regard as the blessing, the salvation of our life — namely, that we can be a conscious being in a physical body and can develop conscious activity — we owe to the circumstance that, with our conscious life, we encroach destructively, poisonously, upon our organism. Only, for the ordinary conscious life, this process of poisoning and destruction is by no means irreparable; on the contrary, the organism has been attacked in such a way that when the process of destruction has reached a certain point the conscious spiritual life withdraws, leaving the organism to its own activity. So then sleep intervenes; and in it, while the organism is left to its own activity, what has been destroyed through the conscious phenomena of the soul life, is restored again. The spiritual scientist is well aware of the many ingenious, more or less significant hypotheses which have been advanced concerning sleep and fatigue; one would have to speak at great length to analyze these hypotheses. Here, however, it is not our concern to explain these purely materialistic hypotheses, but to establish the fact that consciousness with its content must itself intrude destructively into the organism which contains the external instrument of the consciousness, and that the sleep condition compensates for the destructive process which is thus really repaired. Hence we may say: Sleep is the healer of those conditions which, as processes of ill health, consciousness is obliged to bring about in the organism.

Now when the spiritual scientist has come so far as not only to see what the normal, external consciousness sees — namely, that on falling asleep the conscious ideas and so on sink into indeterminate darkness — when he comes to the point of actually observing what goes on around him, even when this normal, ordinary consciousness disappears, then he also reaches the point of being able to follow the process of falling asleep and waking. It is self-knowledge in the widest sense that a man makes his own through spiritual research. And then he comes to a true conception of those processes which accompany falling asleep, and which are processes of building up, of the bourgeoning of life in the organism. Actually, through spiritual research, through all reasoning and thinking in the light of Spiritual Science, we experience something of this bourgeoning life in the mere bodily organism, every time we fall asleep; but — as it goes no farther than the mere organism — it has only the value of plant life. — What can be experienced every evening on falling asleep may be described thus: You see your own organism with the whole of your soul life; you see what has filled your consciousness during your day life sink out of sight; but as compensation you see, springing up in your own organism, processes which are restorative, not destructive — which, nevertheless, within you are only like the sprouting of plant life. Thus during sleep we have in our organism something like the experience of spontaneous vegetation. The experience of falling asleep, with the fading away of conscious ideas, is something like a springtime experience in which we see what is only plant-like in our organism emerging out of the unconscious. The moment of falling asleep may in this sense be regarded as completely parallel with the emerging of the sprouting, growing plant world in spring.

When we look at plant life in this way, we give up the idea of comparing this sprouting forth of the plants in spring with a human birth or, in general, with what can be called birth in man or in any living animal being; we come to understand that the great earth mother is a complete organism in herself experiencing in spring — in that part of the earth where it is springtime — what man for his part experiences when he falls asleep. The mistake most often made in such comparisons in usually the result of things not being viewed in their reality, but rather considered in connection with external circumstances. It will satisfy the imagination of many to be able to compare the sprouting of plants in the spring with something in the human being periodically repeated, which does not actually represent death and birth; but if a man is following his imagination only he may wish to compare the germinating of the plant world in spring with man's moment of waking. This is wrong. It is not the waking, the return of the soul content, with which the springtime is comparable; it is with the falling asleep, the fading away of the inner spiritual life, the actualities of the soul, and the germination of the merely organic, the merely vegetable in man. If, through the clairvoyant faculty, man can follow consciously at the moment of waking how his ideas and all that he remembers emerge from indeterminate darkness, then there is present again something bringing about the necessary destruction of the whole germinated inner vegetation. It is actually as if with the rising of our ideas on waking in the morning, autumn conditions had blown over everything which had grown up overnight: an inner process comparable for the whole earth with the withering of the plants towards autumn. Only, the earth is not represented as man is by two states of consciousness — waking and sleeping; while one half of the earth is asleep the other half is always awake, so that sleep always follows the sun's journey from one hemisphere to the other. Thus, then, with the earth we are dealing with a vast organism which lives its sleep life from spring to autumn, the sleep life which we are shown in the external organs, in what sprouts and grows in the plant kingdom, and in autumn withdraws into its spiritual sphere, into what is the soul of the earth; for the life of the earth is in the season from autumn to spring. Hence, we cannot speak of a real death or a real birth in plants at all, only of a sleeping and waking of the whole earth organism. As in human beings sleeping and waking is repeated rhythmically in the course of twenty-four hours, and as we do not speak in this connection of the death and birth of our thought world either, if we wish to speak correctly, should we speak of the life and death of plants. We should keep the whole earth organism in view, regarding the plant process belonging to the whole earth organism as a waking up and falling asleep of the earth. When we are feeling most pleasure in what is springing out of the earth, when we remember how men of earlier times, out of their joy in the sprouting life, kept the Feast of St. John, that is precisely the time for the earth which is midnight for man, with respect to his organism and external bodily nature. And when men prepare to celebrate the Christmas festival, when life without is dead, then we are dealing with the spiritual processes of earth. At this time man best finds his connection with the whole spiritual life of the earth; he realizes what he has indicated (from a correct instinct) by fixing mankind's spiritual festivals in winter. I know what objections external natural science can raise against this, but natural science does not consider man's correct instincts.

Now let us try to investigate what we can call death in the animal kingdom, not indeed by making judgments through analogy but rather, by expressing once more, through a process in the human being, what Spiritual Science has to give.

Now we must notice that our soul life, if we study it carefully, certainly shows a different course from that which consists in its furtherance and fructifying through the alternation of waking and sleeping. It should be pointed out that through the whole of a man's life — from his childhood, for as long as he can consciously remember — he is experiencing a kind of maturing process. Ever more and more mature does a man become through what he can absorb of life's experience. This maturing process is accomplished in a strange way. We remember — and through this alone is it possible for an ego to speak within us — all that we have experienced back to a certain point in our childhood; but we remember only the things connected with our ideas, with our thoughts. This is a very remarkable fact, but everyone in himself can follow up the statement. When you remember a painful or a pleasurable occurrence which took place perhaps thirty years ago, you will say: I can quite well recall all the details of the ideas which came into my mind, so that I can reconstruct them in my conception of the incident; but the pain or the pleasure connected with the occurrence at that time does not remain in my soul so vividly as objects of thought generally do. They have faded, severed themselves from the idea, and sunk into indeterminate darkness. We might say: We can always retrieve the ideas from the deep strata of our soul life, but — apart from exceptions — we must leave submerged our memories of what we have experienced as feelings, impulses, or passions. What we have experienced in the way of feeling remains submerged, detached from the bare ideas. Is it entirely lost? Does it lapse into nothingness? Emphatically No. For one who has not studied human life really conscientiously and in detail, it may seem to be so; but a conscientious observer studying from every point of view, will find the following: If we observe a human being at a definite juncture of his life; for example, in his fortieth year, we find him in a certain condition, a condition of soul but also of bodily health or sickness. The man appears to us as gloomily melancholic, easily depressed, or cheerful, or in some way of a phlegmatic or other temperament, easily grasping at the actualities of the world, easily absorbing what pleasure and joy can give him, and so on. The soul condition should not always be separated from the bodily; for the condition of soul appearing in a man is dependent on the way the bodily functions work. If we thus observe the soul mood and the whole disposition of a man at any age of his life, we shall soon find out what has become of the feeling experiences separated from the ideas which could only be remembered later as mental images. We shall find that what became detached as the mood of heart and soul has united itself with our deeper organization; it cannot be remembered in our inner life, but it expresses itself in the inner life, expresses itself, indeed, even as far as in health and sickness. Where are these moods lingering since we cannot remember them? They are submerged in the life of body and soul, and constitute a definite disposition in the man's whole life. Thus it appears to us that as we need memory for the whole course of our conscious life, as in sleep memory always plunges into indeterminate darkness, so our experiences of heart and soul sink down into the darkness of our own being and work upon our whole disposition.

So we have a second element at work in man. And now if we direct our gaze away from man to the whole earth organism, which we are studying as an ensouled being, we do not indeed study it as if the forces of soul and spirit at work in it are organized in the same way as the soul of man. For Spiritual Science shows us that many such beings as man dwell in the soul sphere of the earth; so that the soul of the earth presents a multiplicity, whereas that of man is a unity. Nevertheless, with respect to what has just been described, what is of a soul nature in the earth can quite well be compared with the soul experiences in man himself. — When we see how our moods of heart and soul sink down into our own organism, work on our body and come to expression in our whole disposition, we recognize a parallel to this in the sum total of processes carried out on earth, and indeed in all that finds expression in the origin of the living animal being. In ourselves, a process of body and soul is only set free through what is forced down into the darkness of our bodily disposition by the experiences of our heart and soul. For the earth, the corresponding experiences of soul and spirit are, as it were, crystallized in the birth and death of an animal being. — I know very well that a man who thinks out of hypotheses he can form a world conception which apparently stands firmly on the ground of natural science, may be disgusted by this explanation. I can sympathize with such a man. But the time will come when the direction of human thought and judgment leading to the elucidation of the processes of earthly death and birth will in the next spiritual evolution take the path indicated here; for all that we see as fact in natural science leads us to this conclusion. — Just as a man sees the moods of his soul which shape his organic disposition sinking into his bodily organism, so does he see externally in the earth organism the corresponding process of the rise of the animal world.

So, then, we find in the human being still another process: we see how out of the whole organism the so-called higher feelings and emotions emerge again in the soul. What is the characteristic of these? Whoever deals with this question without prejudice, but also without false asceticism, without false piety and hypocrisy, will say: What we may call the higher moral feelings and those moods in a man which develop into enthusiasm for all that is good, beautiful and true, for all that brings about the progress of the world, this is alive in us only because we are able, by the disposition of our heart and soul, to rise above everything originally implanted in us by instinct; so that, in our spiritual feelings, in our spiritual enthusiasm, we raise ourselves above all that the bodily organism alone can arouse. This can go so far that he whose enthusiasm is in his spiritual life sets so much store by the object of it, that it is a light thing for him even to give his physical life for the sake of what has inspired his higher moral and aesthetic feelings. Here we see that which lives as the spiritual element in this enthusiasm rise, with the suppression of our merely organic nature, in a mood which primarily has nothing to do with the course of the organic life. Thus an element in man also runs its course; that element which he sends down into the depths of his being and which there carries out its organic processes; but from the depths of his being also raise his moral and spiritual feelings, and with them the disposition of his heart and soul. These conquer, in ever-progressing evolution, what belongs merely to the organic, to the physically instinctive constitution of man.

This process, which we find in the human being divided into two elements, we find also in the world of living animals. If in our own case we let our disposition of heart and soul sink down into the life of the body, allowing ourselves to be influenced to the extent of health or sickness by our moods of heart and soul, we see, on the other hand, in all that is lived out in animal life, what constitutes a sinking down of such disposition for the whole earth. All that is feeling and passion in the whole earth organism is lived out in the animal kingdom just as our passions and impulses are lived out in our whole organization. As we look at the animal world we see in each separate form the result of the disposition of the soul of our earth. And if we consider the attraction which the earth exercises over the life of the animal world, allowing itself to be most closely linked with the external physical body, we see that this is no other than the victory of the spiritual — of what, with regard to animals we call the group soul. It is the super-sensible element which finds its representative only in externals, and conquers the external, as in man the spiritual feelings conquer what is merely instinctive. That the external processes of the earth organization always acquiesce in the power of death over the individual animal is in no way different from the victory always achieved in us by the spiritual over what is merely connected with the organic. Seeing the spiritual element in the animal from this point of view, we cannot apply the expressions birth and death to the beginning and end of an animal's existence in the same way as we apply them to man. It is certainly in animals a process of the whole earth, already more individualized than in the plant world. Nevertheless, if we bear in mind the different group souls assigned to the various animal species, we must see how, in each death which overtakes the individual animal, the external, bodily part perishes, but the group soul, which is the spiritual element in the animal, is always triumphant over the external form; just as in man the spiritual triumphs over the merely instinctive, represented not in the separate form but certainly in the organization.

Thus we see, as it were, a vast living being composed of the individual group souls of the animals, and we see the birth and death of the living animal appear in such a way that what forms the foundation of the spiritual in the individual animal has always to fight for its victory over the individuality. Hence we have death in animals presented as that which, as the group soul, moves above the wasting and decay of the individual animal form. We could only speak of a real death in connection with an animal if we failed to bear in mind what remains after the death of an animal; namely, the spiritual, as in man the spiritual, rising above itself, triumphs over the disposition of soul as well as over what is doomed to wither away. — If Darwinism ever advances beyond its present stage, it will see how, throughout the animal kingdom, from the earliest ages, a thread of evolution runs through the apparent births and deaths into the distant future; so that the whole evolution of the animal kingdom will lead at last to a victory of what the lower, the individual animal form being overcome — will issue from the entire spiritual world, leaving behind the lower part living in the individual animals, and will one day triumph over the instinctive element apparent in the whole of animal nature.

And when in man we come to what we call the human will nature — if we then do not speak only of the ideas he has had, which can be recalled again and again, and do not fix our attention only on the soul disposition which sinks in the way described into the deeper organization — if we, rather, look to the impulses of the will, we shall see that they represent above all the most enigmatic part of human nature. How the impulses of a man's will are determined depends upon the experiences life has brought him. If we look back from any point in our life, we find a continuous path, a movement, in which each soul event is linked with one before it. We find, however, that what we have experienced flows mainly into our will in such a way that if we look at ourselves thus, we may say that we have actually become richer in ideas, and riper with respect to the impulses of our will. Indeed, we develop a very special ripeness with respect to our will. This is experienced by everyone looking back upon his life. We do something in life; how we ought to have done it we actually learn only when we have done it. And everyone knows how little chance there is of finding himself in the same situation again later, so that he may apply, at a later opportunity, what he has gained as maturity in life — what he has, perhaps, won through experience of trial and error. One thing, however, he knows; namely, that all his experiences are fitted together in the whole composition of his will, in what we may call the wisdom of his willing; this makes for the maturity to which we gradually attain. It is our will life which becomes increasingly mature; the whole of our feelings, ideas, and so on, combine together to make our will, even with regard to external concerns, increasingly mature. For, when our thinking becomes riper through the experiences of life, this is indeed only a growing ripeness in the will expressed in the fitting together of thought with thought. So we see how our whole soul life as we survey it in retrospect leads us, as it were, to the center of our being, which forms the background to our will impulses and in which this constant ripening is expressed. If we bear this in mind, we have the third element of human evolution, of which we can say that in life we cultivate it in our physical body — we grow up in this element — in it we grow beyond and above what we were when we came into this existence through birth. As in this existence we are clothed in a physical body, and this physical body is the instrument we have to use for our soul — because the soul employs the reasoning power, employs the brain — the being of our soul acquires experience and maturity in life which crystallizes, as it were, in the whole structure of the mature will.

In this life, however, we are not as a rule in a position to work out, to carry through, what is now present in the impulses of our will. This is the question before mankind: What is it in these will impulses which we cultivate as the dearest possession of our souls, which we have made our own, perhaps just on account of our imperfection, that makes us never able to bring them to expression? What we send down into the depths of our being as the content of the experiences of our soul (we have observed this in the second part of our study) leads to the whole disposition of our body and soul. It leads to the way our character is determined, to what life has made of us with regard to health and sickness, whether we are more melancholic, or cheerful, and so on. But what we have made of ourselves with respect to the disposition of our will, this is our inmost being; this is what we have become. Through this, however, we have outgrown what we were. And in the second half of our life, when we are going downhill, we notice how our body refuses to carry out what we have become through the impulses of our will. In short, we see that through our life as perceiving, feeling and willing beings we become something completely at variance with what we already are, something which recoils from what we already are. As our life ripens we feel inwardly in our souls how we clash with what, through our elements, through our bodily aptitudes, through our soul life, we have become. We feel inwardly the conflict between the whole structure of our will and mature life, on the one hand, and on the other the whole structure of our organization; fundamentally we also feel this clash in every single impulse of the will leading to action. This is because our thoughts are to a certain extent transparent, and our feelings, too; but the way in which will power becomes action is inscrutable. The will clashes, so to speak, with external life, and becomes conscious of itself only when this clash takes place. And here we may follow, in the whole of life, even in the bodily organization, what already appears in the life of the soul; namely, that what a man has become, what has given him the aptitude for his talents, must be broken and destroyed by the will, which only appears in this life; otherwise this will power will never be able to make itself felt.

Just as man can become conscious of himself only through the clash with reality, so can he only experience himself as a progressive process by his whole physical life being destroyed through the will, in the same way as the brain is destroyed by the life of ideas. But whereas the brain can be restored through sleep, a new growth of the will cannot be promoted; in fact, through the impulses of the will a continuous process of destruction enters into every life. Thus we see that man must destroy his organism; we realize the necessity of real death for man. Just as we understand the necessity of sleep for the life of ideas, so we now understand the necessity of death for the life of the will. For it is only because man's physical organization is in opposition to his will that the will is aware of itself, that it is strengthened in itself, and thus goes through the gate of death into a life in the spiritual world where it appropriates to itself the forces to build up, in a future incarnation, all that man has not attained in this bodily life. This could be developed for him only by a consciousness ripe for the next move, for something which gives opportunity for a further advance that has not been fully carried out in this life; for this he could only have a consciousness ripe for the next stage which gave him the aptitude for something further that could not be lived out in this life. This will be lived out in a coming earth life, in which the man will work at his new destiny, his new earth life, in an appropriate way.

Whereas, then, with reference to death we could only speak in the plant world of a waking and falling asleep of the whole earth nature, and in the animal world could only compare death with the ebb and flow, and the conquest of our lower life of instinct, it is only with human death that we find what points us, through the destruction of this one life, to ever-recurring lives. It is only through the destruction of this one life that we can attain to what enters into the new earth life and alone leads to the true consummation of the whole human existence. Through this it is also established that the will of man, to become conscious of itself in its entirety, needs the dying away of the physical body; and that, fundamentally, the experience it requires for the correct will impulse is only present when we pass through the gate of death, when this will impulse shares the gradual decline and dying of the external organization. For the will grows by means of the opposition it perceives in the external organization; through this it grows ever stronger and prepares itself to become that which lives throughout eternity. Hence, apart from all that you find explained in Spiritual Science about an unnatural death, it is easy to see that a death brought about by an accident, or suicide, or anything of the kind, is quite different from a natural death, which gives the guarantee for resurrection to a new life. Unnatural death in any form can indeed also be something which signifies an advance in man's total destiny. But what the will, in its general nature, would have had to experience in its victory over the bodily nature, remains in a certain sense present as an inner force, and has to follow a different path when man goes through the gate of death in an unnatural way, from the one it would take if he lived to the natural end of his life.

Thus we see that we may really speak of death only when we are referring to what we may call the development of a new type of will for a new life, and that for this reason we cannot speak of a true death with reference to other beings. As regards man, however, we must speak in such a way that not only are Goethe's words true: “Nature has invented death in order to have more life”, but also in such a way that we say: If there were no death, we should have to wish that it existed, for it makes it possible that through the opposition and withering away of the external organization, the will grows increasingly — growing, indeed, for the new life. And this makes it possible for evolution to advance to greater heights through the different incarnations, so that the life also assumes a more exalted form — even though this does not occur immediately in the next lives, even though retrogression may take place. In the whole course of repeated earth lives the advance will, however, be recognized.

Thus death is the great strengthener of the will for the spiritual life. And we see — as has already been indicated — that recent natural science, although with faltering voice, agrees with Spiritual Science in pointing out that death represents a kind of poisoning process. — Yes, indeed, all spiritual evolution goes its own independent way in devastation, destruction, of the external bodily life. What the world of ideas lays waste in man is repaired by sleep. What is destroyed by the instincts of man is restored by the higher moral and aesthetic feelings and emotions; the destruction of the bodily organization brought about through the activity of the will is restored in the whole life of man through that ripeness of will which persists through death and is able to build up a new life. Thus death acquires a meaning: the meaning whereby man is able, not only to think of immortality, but actually to experience it. Whoever considers death in this way sees it approach as the power leading the external bodily life to its dissolution; but in opposition to this dissolution, he sees the dawn of a new human soul life, the life which man maintains from incarnation to incarnation throughout eternity. Not until we understand the meaning of death for man's eternity have we grasped the meaning of death for the whole of nature. Then, however, we must also give up the widespread, foolish conception which speaks of death in relation to animals and plants; then we must know that actually there can only be a question of real death when those destinies are taken into consideration which the spirit experiences in passing through bodily existence, and when we look at the realities which the spirit must develop in the bodily sphere in order to perfect its own consummation. The spirit must abandon the body to death, so that the spirit may raise itself to an ever higher level of perfection. Keeping this point of view in mind and looking upon death in the human kingdom, our soul may tell us that through death man's spirit and soul can rise to a higher perfection. Even when looking at death in the kingdoms of animal and plant we see the spirit shining through to the ground of all phenomena — and the soul may show itself at one with these words which arouse us, not only bringing us comfort but every hope of life:

Out of the spirit all being has sprung,
Deep in the spirit are the roots of all life,
The aim of all striving is spirit.




Last Modified: 15-Nov-2017
The Rudolf Steiner Archive is maintained by:
The e.Librarian: elibrarian@elib.com
[Spacing]