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Third Scientific Lecture-Course: Astronomy

Schmidt Number: S-4347

On-line since: 15th July, 2010

Lecture VIII

Stuttgart, January 8, 1921

My Dear Friends,

To lead our present studies to a fruitful conclusion we must still pursue the rather subtle course I have been adopting, bringing together a great variety of ideas from different fields. For this reason we shall have to continue with this course also while the other course [1] is going on — between the 11th and 15th January. We must arrange the times by agreement with the Waldorf School. There is so much to bring in that we shall need these days too. Now I am also well aware how many queries, doubts and problems may be arising in connection with this subject. Please prepare whatever questions you would like to put, if you need further elucidation. I will then try to incorporate the answers in one of next week's lectures, so as to make the picture more complete. Working in this way we shall be able to continue as heretofore, bringing in what I would call the subtler aspects of our theme.

Let us envisage once again the course we have been pursuing. Our aim is to gain a deeper understanding of Astronomy — the science of the Heavens — in connection with phenomena on Earth. To begin with, we pointed out that as a rule the Astronomy of our time only takes into account what is observed directly with the outer senses aided, no doubt, by optical instruments and the like. Such, in the main, were all the data hitherto adduced when seeking to explain and understand the phenomena of the Heavens. They took their start from the ‘apparent movements’, as they would now be called, or the celestial bodies. First they considered the apparent movement of the starry Heavens as a whole around the Earth and the apparent movement of the Sun. Then they observed the very strange paths described by the Planets. Such, in effect, is the immediate visual appearance; portions of the planetary paths look like loops (Fig. 1) the planet moves along here, reverses and goes back, and then forward again, here ... And now they reasoned; if the Earth itself is moving and we have no direct perception of this movement, the real movements of the heavenly bodies cannot but be different from the visual appearance. Interpreting along these lines — applying mathematical and geometrical laws — they arrived at an idea of what the ‘real’ movements might be like. So they arrived at the Copernican system and at its subsequent modifications. Such, in the main, were the methods of cognition used; first, what our senses when looking out into the Heavens, and then the intellectual assimilation, the reasoned interpretation of these sense-impression.

Fig. 1

We then pointed out that this procedure can never lead to the adequate penetration of the celestial phenomena, if only for the reason that the mathematical method itself is insufficient. We begin our calculations along certain lines and are then brought to a stop. For as I was reminding you, the ratios between the periods of revolution of the several planets are incommensurable numbers, — incommensurable magnitudes. By calculation therefore, we do not reach the innermost structure of the celestial phenomena. Sooner or later we have to leave off.

It follows that we must adopt a different method. We have to take our start not only from what man observes when he looks out into the Universe with his senses; we must take man as a whole in his connection with the Universe, and perhaps not only man, but other creatures too, — the kingdoms of Nature upon Earth. All these things we pointed out, and I then showed how the whole organization of man can be seen in relation to certain phenomena in the evolution of the Earth, namely the Ice-Ages in their rhythmical recurrence. They also have to do with the inner evolution of man and of mankind. This too, I said, will give us indications of what the real movements in celestial space may be. These are the kind of things we must pursue.

Before continuing the rather more formal lines of thought with which we ended yesterday's lecture, let us consider once again this connection of man's evolution with the evolution of the Earth through the Ice-Ages. We saw that the special kind of knowledge or of cognitional life which the man of present time calls his own has only come into being since the last Ice-Age. Moreover all the civilization-epochs, of which I have so often told, have taken place since then — namely the Ancient Indian, the Persian, the Egypto — Chaldean, the Graeco-Latin and then the epoch in which we are now living. Before the last Ice-Age, we said, there must have been developing in human nature what in the man of today is more withdrawn, less at the surface of his nature, namely his power of ideation — the forming of mental pictures. The inner quality, we said, of this part of our inner life is truly to be understood only if we compare it with our dream-life. It is through sense-perception that our mental pictures receive clear and firm configuration and, as it were, a fully saturated content. The mental pictures are being formed in a more inward region of our bodily organic life — farther back, as it were behind the sense-perceptions, — and this activity is dim and hazy like our dream-life. Our forming of mental pictures would be as dim as it is in dreams, if the experiences of the senses did not strike in upon us every time we awaken. (We may allow the supposition, to help explain what is meant.)

More dim and hazy than our life in sense-perception, this inner life of ideation, mental imagery, is related to those earlier phases in the evolution of man's nature which preceded the last glacial epoch, or which — to speak in anthroposophical terms — belonged to old Atlantis.

What must it then have been like for man? In the first place he must have had a far more intimate inner connection with the surrounding world than he has today through sense-perception. We can control our sense-perception with our will. It is with our will at any rate that we direct the vision of our eyes, and by deliberate attention we can go even farther in governing our sense-perception by our own will. At all events, our will is very much at work in our sense — perceptions, making us to a large extent independent of the outer world. We orientate ourselves by our own arbitrary choice. Now this in only possible because as human beings we have in a way emancipated ourselves from the Universe. Before the last Ice-Age we cannot have been thus emancipated. (I say ‘cannot have been’ since I am wanting now to speak from the empirical aspect of external Science.) During that time, as we have seen, the power of ideation — the forming of mental images — was especially developed, and in his inner conditions man must have been far more dependent on all that was going on around him. Today we see the world around us shining in the sunlight, but the way we see it is considerably subject to the inner culture and control of our own life of will. In Atlantean time the way man was given up to the outer world must have been somehow dependent on the illumined Earth and its illumined objects, and then again — at night-time when the Sun was not shining — on the darkness, the gloaming. He must in other words have experienced periodic alternations in this respect. His inner life of mental imagery, which as we saw was then in process of development must alternately have been lighting up and ebbing down again. This inner periodicity, brought about by man's relation to the surrounding Universe, was indeed not unlike the peculiar periodicity of woman's organic functions of which we spoke before, which is related to the Lunar phases though only as regards length of time. This inner functioning of the woman's nature (I said, you will remember, it is there in man too but in a more inward way and therefore less easily perceived) was at one time actually linked with the corresponding events in the outer Universe. It then became emancipated — a property of human nature on its own, — so that what now goes on in the human being in this respect need not coincide with the outer events. yet the periodicity — the sequence of phases — remains the same as it was when the one coincided with the other.

Something quite similar is true of the rhythmic alternation in our inner life — in our ideation, our forming of mental images. The whole way we are organized in this respect, implanted in us in a far distant past, is to this day more or less independent of the life of the outer senses. Day by day we undergo an inner rhythm, our powers of mental imagery alternately lighting up and growing more dim; it is a daily ebb and flow. We only fail to notice it, since it is far less intense than that other periodicity which runs parallel to the Lunar phases. Nevertheless, in our head-organization to this day we have an alternation between a brighter and a dimmer kind of life. We carry in our head a rhythmic life. We are at one time more and at another less inclined to meet our sense-perceptions actively from within. It is a 24-hour rhythmic alteration. It would be interesting to observe — it might even be recorded in graphically — how human being vary as regards this inner period of the head, the forces of ideation and mental imagery alternating between brighter and more lively and then again dimmer and more sleepy times. The dim and sleepy times represent, so to speak, the inner night of the head, the brighter ones the inner day, but it does not coincide with the external alternation of day and night. It is an inner alternation of light and darkness, or relatively bright and dim conditions. And people vary in this respect. One human being has this inner alternation of light and dark in such a way that he tends rather to connect the lighter period of his mental image-forming power with his sense-perceptions. Another tends to it with the darker. Individuals are organized in one way or the other, and differ accordingly as to their power of observing the outer world. One human being will be inclined sharply to focus the phenomena of the outer world; another tends to do so less, — is more inclined to an inner brooding. All this is due to the alternating conditions I have been describing. Notably as educators, my dear Friends, we should cultivate the habit of observing things like this. They will be valuable signposts, indicating how we should treat the individual children both in our teaching and in education generally.

What interests us however here and now is the fact that man thus makes inward, as it were, what he once underwent in direct mutual relation with the outer world; so that it now works in him as an inner rhythm, the phases no longer coinciding with the outer yet still retaining the periodicity Before the Ice-Age, man's periods of brighter and more intimate participation in the surrounding Universe,. and then of dim withdrawal into himself, will have coincided regularly with the processes of the outer world. He still retains an echo of this rhythm, which in those long-ago times proceed from his living-together with the Universe around him, where at one moment his consciousness was lightened and filled with pictures while at another he withdrew into himself, brooding over the pictures. It is an echo of this latter state whenever we today are inclined to brood more or less melancholically in our own inner life. Once again therefore, what man experienced in and with the world in those older times has been driven farther back into his inner bodily nature, while at the outer periphery a new development has taken place in his faculties of sense-perception. He had these faculties, of course in earlier epochs too, but not developed in the way they now are.

While looking thus at what has taken place in man through his connection with the phenomena of the world around him, we are in fact looking into the Universe itself. Man then becomes the reagent for a true judgment of the phenomena of the Universe. But to complete this we need the other kingdoms of Nature too. Here I should like to draw your attention to something well-known and evident to everyone, the essential significance of which, however, remains unrecognized.

Consider the annual plant, — the characteristic cycle of its development. We see in it quite evidently what I was mentioning yesterday — the direct and indirect influences of the Sun. Where the Sun works directly, the flower comes into being; where the Sun works in such a way that the Earth comes in between, we get the root. The plant too makes manifest what we were speaking of yesterday as regards the animal and then applied in another way to man.

Yet we shall only see the full significance of this if we relate it to another fact. There are perennial plants too. What is the relation of the perennial plant to the annual, as regards the way in which plant-growth belongs to the Earth as a whole? The perennial retains its stem or trunk, and the truth is: Year by year a new world of plants springs, so to speak, from the trunk itself. Of course it is modified and metamorphosed, yet it is a vegetation growing on the trunk, which in its turn grows out of the Earth (Fig. 2). If you have morphological perception you will see it as clearly as can be, — it almost goes without saying. Here on the left I have the surface of the Earth, and the annual plant springing from it. Here on the right is the stem or trunk of the perennial, from which new vegetation, new plant-growth springs in each succeeding year. I must image something or other (to leave it vague, for the moment) continued from the Earth into the trunk. I must say to myself — what this plant here (Fig. 2 on the left) is growing on, must somehow be there in the trunk too (on the right). In other words there must be some element of the Earth — whatever it may be — entering into the trunk. I have no right to regard the trunk of the perennial as a thing apart, not belonging to the Earth; rather must I regard it as a modified portion of the Earth itself. Only then shall I be seeing it rightly; only then shall I discern the inner relationships, such as they really are. Something is there in the perennial plant, which otherwise is only in the Earth. It is through this that the plant becomes perennial. In effect, precisely by taking something of the Earth into itself it frees itself from dependence on the yearly course of the Sun. For we may truly say: The perennial wrests itself away from its dependence on the Sun's yearly course. it emancipates itself from the yearly course of the Sun, in that it forms the trunk, receiving into its own Nature — becoming able, as it were, to do for itself what otherwise could only come about through the working of the whole cosmic environment.

Figure 2

Do we not here see prefigured in the plant world, what I was just describing with regard to man in preglacial times? For in those times, as I was showing, the inner rhythm of the man's ideation — his life in mental pictures — developed by relation to the surrounding world. What then lived in the mutual relation between man and the surrounding world has since become a feature of his own inner life. There is an indication of the same kind of change in the plant kingdom, in that the annual is changed to a perennial. This is indeed a universal tendency in evolution; the living entities are on the way to emancipation from their original connections with the surrounding world.

Seeing the perennials arising, we have to say: It is as though the plant, when it becomes perennial, had learned something it you will allow the expression — learned from the time when it depended on cosmic environment, something which it can now do for itself. Now it is able of itself to bring forth fresh plant-shoots year by year. We do not reach an understanding of the phenomena of the world by merely staring at the things that happen to be side by side, or that are crowded into the field of view under the microscope. We have to see the larger whole and recognize the single phenomena in their connection with it.

Look at it all once more. The annual plant is given up to the cycle of the year, with all the changing relations to the Cosmos which this involves. This influence of the Cosmos beings to fade away in the perennial. In the perennial, what would otherwise vanish in the further course of the year is, as it were, preserved. In the trunk we see springing from the ground the working of the year, made permanent and lasting. This transition of what was first connected with the outer Universe into a more inward way of working we see it throughout the whole range of Nature's phenomena, in so far as they are cosmic. Hence too there are phenomena in which we can more quickly find the living connections between our Earth and the wider Cosmos, whilst there are others in which the cosmic influences are more concealed. We need to find out which of them are sensitive reagents, telling of the cosmic influences. The annual plant will tell us of the Earth's connection with Cosmos, the perennial will not be able to tell us much.

Again, the relation of the animal to man can give us an important clue. Look at the animal's development. (Though we might also include it, we will for the moment disregard the embryonic life.) The animal is born and grows up to a certain limit. It reaches puberty. Look at the animal's whole life, until puberty and beyond. Without any added hypotheses — taking the simple facts — you must admit that it is strange, what happens to the animal once puberty has been attained. For in a way the animal is finished then, so far as the earthly world is concerned. Any such statement is of course an approximation to the truth, needless to say; yet in the main we must admit that in the animal no further progression is to be seen, not after puberty. Puberty is the important goal of animal development. The immediate consequence of puberty — all that happens as an outcome of it — is there of course, but we cannot allege that anything takes place thence forward, deserving to be called a true progression.

With man it is different. Man remains capable of development far beyond puberty; but the development becomes more inward. Indeed it would be very sad for man if in his human nature he were to end his development at puberty in the way animals do. Man goes beyond this. He holds something in reserve by means of which he can go farther, — can undertake quite other journeys, unconnected with sexual maturity or puberty. This again is not unlike the “inwarding” of the cycle of the year in the perennial as against the annual plant. What is in evidence in the animal when puberty is reached, we see it transmuted into a more inward process in man, from puberty onward. Something therefore is at work in man, that is related to a cosmic process in his development from birth until puberty, and that then gets emancipated from the Cosmos — just as it does in the perennial plant — when puberty has been outgrown.

Here then you have a subtler way of estimating the phenomena among the kingdoms of Nature; so will you presently find signposts, indicating the connections between the creatures upon Earth and the Cosmos. We see how, when the cosmic influences cease as such, they are transplanted into the inner nature of the several creatures. We will take note of this and set it on one side for the moment; later we shall find the synthesis between this and quite another aspect.

Let us now take up again what I have frequently mentioned: The incommensurable ratios between the periods of revolution of the planets of the solar system. We may ask, what would the outcome be if they were commensurable? Cumulative disturbances would arise, whereby the planetary system would be brought to a standstill. This can be proved by calculation, though it would lead too far afield to do it now. Only the incommensurability between the periods of revolution enables the planetary system, so to speak, to stay alive. In other words, the solar system contains among other things a condition even tending to a standstill. It is precisely this condition which we are calculating. When in our calculations we get to the end of our tether, there is the incommensurable — and there, withal, is the very life of the planetary system! We are in a strange predicament when calculating the planetary system. If it were such that we could fully calculate it, it would die, — nay, as I said before, would have died long ago. It lives by virtue of the face that we can not calculate it fully. What is alive in the planetary system is precisely what we cannot calculate.

Now upon what do we base these calculations, from which once more, if we could pursue them to the end, we must deduce the inevitable death of the whole system? We base them on the force of gravitation — universal gravitation. Suppose we take our start from gravitation and nothing more, and think it out consistently. We get the picture of a planetary system subject to the force of gravitation. Then indeed we do arrive at commensurable ratios. But the planetary system would inevitably die. We calculate, in other words, to the extent that death prevails in the planetary system, basing our calculations on the force of gravity. In other words there must be something in the planetary system — different from gravitation — to which the incommensurability is due.

The planetary orbits can be brought into accord with the force of gravity very nicely, even as to their genesis, but their periods of revolution would then have to be commensurable. Now there is something which cannot be brought into accord with the force of gravitation, and which moreover does not so tidily fit into our planetary system. I mean what reveals itself in the cometary bodies. The comets play a very strange part in the system, and they have recently been leading scientists to some unusual ideas.

I leave aside the kind of explanations which often tend to arise, where anything most recently discovered is seized on to explain phenomena in other fields. In physiology for instance there was a time when they were fond of comparing the so-called sensory nerves to telegraph-wires leading in from the periphery. Through some central switch or commutator the impulse was supposed to be transmitted, leading to impulses and acts of will. From the centripetal nerves it was supposed to be switched over to the centrifugal; they compared it all to a telegraphic system. Maybe one day something quite different from telegraph-wires will be invented and by this way of thinking quite another picture will be applied to the same thing. So do the scientific fashions change. Whatever happens to have been discovered is quickly seized on as a handy way of explaining the phenomena in other fields. Much as they do in medicine! Scarcely has any new thing been found, — it is “discovered” to be a valuable remedy, though little thought is given to the inner reasons. Now that we have X-rays, X-rays are the remedy to use; we only use them because we happen to have found them. It is as though men let themselves be swept along chaotically, willy-nilly by whatever happens to turn up from time to time.

So for the comets: By spectroscopic investigation and by comparison with the corresponding results for the planets, the idea arose that the phenomena might be explained electromagnetically. Such ideas will at most lead to analogies, which may no doubt have some connection with the reality, but which will certainly not satisfy us if we are looking into it more deeply.

Yet as I said, leaving this aside, there was one thing which emerged quite inevitably when the phenomena of comets were studied in more detail. While for the rest of the planetary system they always speak of gravitational forces, the peculiar position of the comet's tail in relation to the Sun inevitably drove the scientists to speak of forces of repulsion from the Sun — forces, as it were of recoil. The terminology is not the main point; it will of course vary with the prevailing fashion. The point is that science was here obliged to look for something in addition to — and indeed opposite to gravity.

In effect, with the comets something different enters our planetary system, — something which in its nature is in a way opposite to the inner structure of the planetary system as such. Hence it is understandable that for long ages the riddle of the comets gave rise to manifold superstitions. Men had a feeling that in the courses of the planets laws of Nature, inherently belonging to our planetary system, find expression, while with the comets something contrary comes in. Here something disparate and diverse makes its way into our planetary system. Thus they inclined to see the planetary phenomena as an embodiment of normal laws of Nature, and to regard the cometary apparitions as something contrary to these normal laws. There were times — though not the most ancient times — when comets were associated, as it were, with moral forces flying through the Universe, scourges for sinful man.

Today we rightly look on that as superstition. Yet even Hegel could not quite escape associating the comets with something not quite explicable or only half explicable by ordinary means. The 19th century, of course, no longer believed the comets to appear like judges to chastise mankind. Yet in the early 19th century they had statistics purporting to connect them with good and bad vintage years. These too occur somewhat irregularly; their sequence does not seem to follow regular laws of Nature. And even Hegel did not quite escape this conclusion. He though it plausible that the appearance or non-appearance of comets should have to do with the good and bad vintage years.

The standpoint of the people of today — at least, of those who share the normal scientific outlook — is that our planetary system has nothing to fear from the comets. Yet the phenomena which they evoke within this planetary system somehow have little inner connection with it. Like cosmic vagrants they seem to come from very distant regions into the near neighborhood of our Sun. Here they call forth certain phenomena, indicating forces of repulsion from the Sun. The phenomena appear, was and wane, and vanish.

There was a man who still had a certain fund of wisdom where by he contemplated the Universe not only with his intellect but with the whole human being. He still had some intuitive perception of the phenomena of the Heavens. I refer to Kepler. He was the author of a strange saying about the comets — a saying which gives food for thought to anyone who is at all sensitive to Kepler; way of though and mood of soul. We spoke of his three Laws — a work of genius, when one considers the ideas and the data which were accessible in his time. Kepler arrived at his Laws out of a feeling for the inner harmony of the planetary system. For him it was no mere dry calculation; it was a feeling of harmony. He felt has three planetary Laws as a last quantitative expression of something qualitative — the harmony pervading the whole planetary system. And out of this same feeling he made a statement about the comets, the deep significance of which one feels if one is able to enter into such things at all. Kepler said: In the great Universe — even the Universe into which we look by night — there are as many comets as there are fishes in the ocean. We only see very, very few among them, while all the rest remain invisible, either because they are too small or for some other reason. Even external research has tended to confirm Kepler's saying. The comets seen were recorded even in olden time and it is possible to compare the number. Since the invention of the telescope ever so many more have been seen than before. Also when looking out into the starry Heavens under different conditions of illumination — that is to say, making provision for extreme darkness — a larger number of comets are recorded than otherwise. Even empirical research therefore comes near to what Kepler exclaimed, inspired as he was by a deep feeling for Nature.

Now if one speaks at all of a connection between the Cosmos and what happens on the Earth, it surely is not right to dwell one-sidedly on the relation to our Earth of the other planets of our system and to omit the heavenly bodies which come and go as the comets do. It is especially one-sided since we must now admit that the comets give rise to phenomena indicating the presence of quite other forces — forces opposite in kind to those to which we usually attribute the coherence of our planetary system. The comets do in fact bring something opposite into our system, and if we follow it up we must admit that this too is of great significance. Something in some way opposite in nature to the force which holds it together, comes with the comets into our planetary system.

In an earlier lecture-course about natural phenomena I drew attention to something of which I must here remind you. Those who were present — the course was mainly about Heat or Warmth[2] — will no doubt recall it. I said that when we look at the phenomena of warmth in their relation to other phenomena of the Universe we are obliged to form a far more concrete idea of the Ether, of which the physicists generally speak in rather hypothetical terms. I said that in the formulae of Physics, wherever the force of pressure occurs as regards ponderable matter, we have to replace it by a force of suction as regards the ether. In other words, if we insert a plus sign for the intensity of a force in the realm of ponderable matter, we must give a minus sign to the corresponding intensity in the ether. I suggested that the well-known formulae should be looked through with this end in view; for one would see how remarkably, when this is done, they harmonize with the phenomena of Nature.

Take for example that whole game of thought, if I may call it so, the Kinetic Theory of Gases, of of Heat itself, — the molecules impinging on each other and on the walls of the containing vessel. Take all this brutal play of mutual impact and recoil which is supposed to represent the thermal condition of gas. Instead of this phenomena will become clear and penetrable the moment we perceive that within warmth itself there are two conditions. akin to the conditions that prevail in ponderable matter; the other must be thought of as akin to the ether. Warmth is in this respect different from Air or Light. For light, if we are calculating truly we must use the negative sign throughout. Whatever in our formulae is to represent the effects of light, must bear a negative sign. For air or gas the sign must be positive. For warmth on the other hand, the positive and negative will have to alternate. What we are wont to distinguish as conducted heat, radiant heat and so on will only then become clear and transparent.

Within the realm of matter itself, these things reveal the need for a qualitative transition from the positive to the negative in characterizing the different kinds of force. And we now see, very significantly, how for the planetary system we also have to pass from the positive — that is, gravitation — to the corresponding negative, the repelling force.

One more thing I will say today, if only to formulate the problem. For the moment I will carry it no further, but only put the problem; we shall have time to go into these things in later lectures. Now that we have ascertained all this about the cometary bodies, let me compare the relation between our planetary system and the comets to what is there in the ovum, the female germ-cell, in its relation to the male element, the fertilizing sperm. Try to imagine, try to visualize the two processes, as you might actually see them. There is the planetary system; it receives something new into itself, namely the effects of a comet. There is the ovum; it receives into itself the fertilizing effect of the male cell, the spermatozoid.

Look at the two phenomena side by side without prejudice, as you might do in ordinary life when you see two things obviously comparable, side by side. Do you not find plenty of comparable features when you contemplate these two? I do not mean to set up any theory or hypothesis, I only want to indicate what you will see for yourselves if you once look at these things in their true connection.

Taking our start from this, tomorrow we may hope to enter into more concrete and more detailed aspects.



1. Examples of the relation of Spiritual Science to the different branches of Science. Four lectures to students, Stuttgart, 11th to 15th January, 1921. Published (in the original German) in the Swiss periodical “Gegenwart”, Vol. 14, nos. 2 to 8, Berne, 1952.

2. Stuttgart, 1st to 14th March 1920, generally known as the “Second Scientific Lecture-Course”. Issued (in the original German) by the Science Section of the Goetheanum, Dornach, Switzerland, 1925.

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