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Salt, Mercury, Sulphur

By Rudolf Steiner

GA 220

A lecture given at Dornach, January 13th, 1923. Published by kind permission from a shorthand report unrevised by the lecturer. All rights reserved by the Philosophisch-Anthroposophischer Verlag, Dornach. Edited by H. Collison. Lecture 5 of 12 from the lecture series: A Living Knowledge of Nature, the Fall of the Intellect into Sin, the Spiritual Resurrection. Published in German as: Lebendiges Naturerkennen, Intellektueller Suendenfall und Spirituelle Suendenerhebung, GA# 220.

Copyright © 1931
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Salt, Mercury, Sulphur

A lecture given at Dornach, January 13th, 1923. Published by kind permission from a shorthand report unrevised by the lecturer. All rights reserved by the Philosophisch-Anthroposophischer Verlag, Dornach. Edited by H. Collison.

By RUDOLF STEINER

AQ Easter 1931


As I propose to follow up the theme of our lecture yesterday, [ Published in Anthroposophy, Christmas, 1930.] I would remind you of the three figures whose outstanding importance has lasted from the turn of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries right on into our own times, namely, Giordano Bruno, Lord Bacon of Verulam and Jacob Boehme. We feel how they wrestled within themselves to understand man, to know something of the being of man, but yet were unable to attain their goal. In the time in which they lived, ancient knowledge of the being of man had been lost and the genuine strivings of the most eminent minds of the day were unable to lead to a new knowledge.

It was said that out of the strange and incoherent utterances of Jacob Boehme there resounds a kind of longing to know the universe in man and man in the universe. Out of the sum-total of his knowledge of the universe and of the being of man something glimmers which, to deeper insight, seems to point to man in pre-earthly existence, to man before he descends to earthly life. And yet we find in Jacob Boehme’s works no clear definition or description of man as a pre-earthly being.

I expressed this more or less as follows. I said that Jacob Boehme describes in halting words the being of pre-earthly man but the man he places before us would have had to die as a being of soul-and-spirit in the spiritual world before he could have come down to the earth. Jacob Boehme describes a rudiment only of pre-earthly man. And so he is incapable of understanding the reality of the universe in man and man in the universe.

If we then consider Giordano Bruno — semi-poet and semi-scientist — we find in him a knowledge of the universe which he expresses in pictures of great majesty. He too tries to fit man into his place within this majestic picture of the universe and he too is trying to recognise the universe in man and man in the universe. But he does not actually reach this knowledge. Giordano Bruno’s imagery is full of beauty and grandeur. On the one side it soars into infinitudes and on the other into depths of the human soul, but it all remains indefinite, even nebulous. Everything that Giordano Bruno says reveals a striving to describe the man of the present in the universe of space and the nature of the spatial universe itself.

And so while Jacob Boehme harks back ineffectually to pre-earthly man, Giordano Bruno gives us a blurred picture of man as he lives on earth in connection with space and with the cosmos too. The picture is not sufficiently clear to indicate real insight into that relation of man to the cosmos which would open up a vista of pre-earthly and post-earthly man.

If we then turn to Lord Bacon of Verulam, we find that he, in reality, no longer has any traditional ideas of the being of man. Of the old insight into human nature which had survived from ancient clairvoyant perception and from the Mysteries, there is no trace in him whatever.

Bacon, however, looks out into the world that is perceptible to the senses and assigns to human intelligence the task of combining the phenomena and objects of this world of sense-existence, of discovering the laws by which they are governed. He thus transfers the perception of the human soul into that world in which the soul is immersed during sleep, but there he only arrives at pictures of nature other than human nature. These pictures, if they are regarded as Bacon regarded them merely from the logical and abstract point of view, merely place the external aspect of human nature before us. If they are inwardly experienced, however, they gradually become vision of man’s existence after death, for a true clairvoyant perception of man’s being after death is to be obtained through this very medium of a real knowledge of nature. Thus Bacon too, at the turn of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is one of those who strive to recognise man in the universe and the universe in man.

But even his powers were inadequate for he did not intensify the pictures into a new experience. Indeed he could not do so, because the old reality was no longer living in the experiences of the soul. Bacon stands as it were at the threshold of the knowledge of life after death but does not actually attain to this knowledge.

We can therefore say: Jacob Boehme still shows signs of possessing a knowledge of pre-earthly man — a knowledge drawn from ancient tradition, but inadequate. Giordano Bruno embarks upon a description of the universe which might have led him to a knowledge of earthly man as he stands there with his life of soul on the one side and his cosmic background on the other. But Giordano Bruno fails to give an adequate description either of the cosmos or of the life of soul which, as presented by him, shrinks into an animated ‘monad.’

Bacon indicates the lines along which natural science must evolve, how it must seek with the powers of free human cognition for the spark of the Spiritual within the merely material. He points to this free activity of human knowledge, but it has no content. Had it been imbued with content Bacon would have been pointing to post-earthly man. But this he cannot do. His knowledge too remains inadequate.

All the living knowledge which in earlier epochs of human evolution it had been possible to create from the inner being, had by that time been lost. Man remained empty when he looked into his inner being with the object of finding knowledge of the universe. He had really ‘lost’ himself, together with his inner life of knowledge, and what remained to him was the vista of the outer world, of outer nature, of that which is not man. Jacob Boehme had gleaned from the Folk-Wisdom something like the following: In the human being there are three principles — salt, mercury, sulphur, as he calls them. These words have, however, an entirely different significance in his language from the significance attaching to them in modern chemistry. Indeed if we try to connect the conceptions of modern chemistry with Jacob Boehme’s magnificent, albeit stammering utterances, his words are entirely devoid of meaning. They were used, of course, by Boehme with a different meaning.

What did these expressions — salt, mercury, sulphur — still mean in the Folk-Wisdom from which Jacob Boehme derived his ideas? When Boehme spoke of the working of the salt, the mercury or the sulphur in man, he was speaking of something absolutely real and concrete. When man to-day speaks of himself, of his soul-nature, he gives voice to abstract ideas which have no real content. Jacob Boehme gathered together, as it were, the last vestiges of knowledge filled with concrete reality. Outer nature lay there perceptible to the senses, comprehensible to human reason. In this outer nature man learnt to see the existence of processes and phenomena and then in the succeeding centuries proceeded to build up an idea of the make-up of man from what he had been able to observe in nature. That is to say, understanding of the being of man was based on what was perceived to be outside man and in seeking thus to understand human nature by way of these external media, a conception of man's body too was built up without any knowledge as to whether this conception was in accordance with his true being or not.

By synthesising the processes which are to be observed in the outer, sense-perceptible world and applying them to the inner processes which take place within the limits of man’s skin, a kind of human spectre is evolved, never the real being of man. In this human spectre the faculties of thinking, feeling and willing also come into consideration, but they remain abstractions, shadowy thought-pictures filled with so-called inner experiences which are, in reality, mere reflections of processes in outer nature. At the time of Bacon there was no longer the slightest inkling of the way in which the being of spirit-and-soul penetrates into the bodily nature, and traditions which had been handed on from the old clairvoyant knowledge were not understood.

Now what has Spiritual Science to say to this? When in the first place we study the bodily nature of man, we have to do with processes connected with the senses, with nutrition, and also with those in which nutrition and sense-perception coincide. When man eats, he absorbs nutriment; he takes into himself the external substances of nature but at the same time he tastes them, so that a sense-perception is intermingled with a process which is continued from nature outside, on into man himself.

Think for a moment of the process of nutrition being accompanied by the perception of taste. We find that while the sense of taste is stimulated and the process of nutrition is set in operation, the outer substances are dissolved in the fluids and juices within the human organism. The outer substances which the plants absorb from lifeless nature are all, to begin with, given form. That which exists on earth without form, in lifeless nature, is really cloven asunder. Crystals are at the basis of all substances. And those substances which we do not find in crystallised form, but formless, in dust and the like, are really crystallisations which have been shattered. Out of crystallised, lifeless nature the plant draws its substances and builds them up into that form which is peculiar to its own nature. From this again the animal derives its nourishment. So that we may say: Out there in nature, everything has its form, its configuration. When man takes in these forms, he dissolves them. This is one form of the process which goes on in man’s organism. The forms, as they exist in outer nature, are dissolved. They are transmuted into the organic fluids.

But when the substances have been absorbed and transmuted into fluid, forms which were first dissolved begin to build up again. When we eat salt, it is first dissolved by means of the fluids in the organism, but we then give it form again. When we eat substances drawn from plants, they are dissolved and then inwardly reformed, not, this time, in the bodily fluids, but in the etheric body.

And now think of what happened in ancient times, when, for example, a man ate salt. It was dissolved and re-formed in his etheric body but he was able to perceive the whole process inwardly. He had an inner thought-experience of the formative process undergone by the salt. When he ate salt, the salt was dissolved and the salt-cube was there in his etheric body. From this he knew: salt has the shape of a cube. And so, as man experienced his being inwardly, he also experienced nature within himself. The cosmic thoughts became his thoughts. What he experienced as imaginations, as dreamlike imaginations, were forms which revealed themselves in his etheric body. They were cosmic forms, cosmic configurations.

But the age dawned when this faculty to experience in the etheric body these processes of dissolution and reconstruction was lost to man. He was obliged more and more to turn to external nature. It was no longer an inner experience to him that salt is cubic in form. He was obliged to investigate outer nature to find out the true configuration of salt.

In this way man’s attention was diverted entirely to the outer world. The radical change to this condition wherein men no longer experienced cosmic thoughts through inner perception of the etheric body, had been taking place since the beginning of the fifteenth century and had reached a certain climax at the time of Giordano Bruno, Jacob Boehme and Bacon of Verulam.

Jacob Boehme, however, had still been able to gather up those crumbs of Folk-Wisdom which told him: Man dissolves everything he assimilates from the outer world of matter. It is a process like salt being dissolved in water. Man bears this water within himself, in his vital fluids. All substances, in so far as they are foodstuffs, are salt. This salt dissolves. In the salts, the cosmic thoughts are expressed on earth. And man again gives form to these cosmic thoughts in his etheric body. This is the ‘salt-process.’

Jacob Boehme expressed in halting language that which in olden times was an inner experience. But if Anthroposophy did not shed light upon what Jacob Boehme says, we should never be able to interpret his stammering utterances. We should read into them all kinds of dark, mystical meanings. Jacob Boehme connected the thinking — the process by which the world presents itself to man in pictures — with the salt-process, that is to say, with the dissolving and re-forming process undergone by substance within the organism of man. Such was his ‘salt-process.’

It is often pathetic, although at the same time it shows up the conceit of some people, to see how they read Jacob Boehme and whenever they come across the word ‘salt,’ pretend to understand it, whereas in reality they understand nothing at all. They come along with their heads in the air saying that they have studied Jacob Boehme and find in him a profound wisdom. But there is no trace of this wisdom in the interpretations they bring forward. Were it not an evidence of conceit it would be quite pathetic to hear such people talk about matters of which Boehme himself had only a glimmering understanding from the Folk-Wisdom which he then voiced in halting words.

These things indicate the existence of an altogether different wisdom and science in olden times, a wisdom which was experienced through inner perception of the processes taking their course in the etheric body — processes which revealed themselves to man as the ever-recurring cosmic thoughts. The world constructed from the thoughts which are embodied in the crystal-formations of the earth, to which man gives form in his etheric body and consciously experiences - such was the ancient knowledge which disappeared in the course of time.

If we were able to transfer ourselves into one of the old Mystery-sanctuaries and listen spiritually to the description which an Initiate would give of the universe, it would have been something like the following: All through the universe the cosmic thoughts are weaving; the Logos is working. The crystal-formations of the earth are the embodiments of the single parts of the cosmic Word. Now the sense of taste is only one of the many senses. The processes of hearing and of sight can be dealt with in a similar way though in their case the working of the salts in etheric form must be thought of in a more outward sense. Man receives through his senses that which is embodied in the salts and re-forms it in his etheric body, experiences it within himself. Cosmic thoughts repeat themselves in the thoughts of men. The universe is recognised in man and man in the universe. With concrete and unerring intuition the Initiates of olden times were able to describe this out of their visionary, dream-like knowledge of the universe and of man.

During the course of the Middle Ages this wisdom was gradually superseded by a merely logical form of knowledge which, though of great significance, became, nevertheless, entirely academic and on the other side had trickled away into Folk-Wisdom. What was once sublime wisdom, relating both to the cosmos and to man had degenerated into sayings used by simple folk who by that time understood little of their meaning but who still felt that some great value was contained in them. It was among such people that Jacob Boehme lived. He absorbed this Folk-Wisdom and by his own genius revived it within him. He was more articulate than those among whom he lived but even he could do no more than express it in halting language.

In Giordano Bruno there was a feeling that man must learn to understand the universe, must get to know his own nature, but his faculties did not enable him to say anything so definite as: ‘Out there are the cosmic thoughts, a universal Word which enshrines itself in the crystal; man takes into himself these cosmic thoughts when, knowingly and deliberately, he dissolves the salts and gives them new form in his etheric body.’ It is so, indeed: from the concrete thoughts of the world of myriad forms, from the innermost thoughts of man, there arises an etheric world as rich in its varied forms as the world outside us.

Just think of it: This wealth of thought in regard to the cosmos and to man shrinks, in Giordano Bruno, into generalisations about the cosmos. It hovers into infinitudes but is nevertheless abstract. And that which lives in man as the world re-formed, shrinks into a picture of the animate monad — in reality, nothing but an extended point.

What I have described to you was real knowledge among the sages of old; it was their science. But in addition to the fact that these ancient sages of the Mysteries were able, by their own dream-veiled vision, to evolve this knowledge, they were able to have actual intercourse with the spiritual Beings of the cosmos. Just as here on earth a man enters into conscious relationship with other human beings, so did these ancient sages enter into relation with spiritual Beings. And from these spiritual Beings they learned something else, namely that what man has formed in his etheric body — by virtue of which he is inwardly another cosmos, a microcosm, an etheric rebirth of the macrocosm — what he thus possesses as an inner cosmos, he can in the element of air, by the process of breathing, again gradually obliterate.

And so in those ancient times man knew that within him the universe is reborn in varied forms; he experienced an inner world. Out of his inner vital fluids the whole universe arose as an etheric structure. That was ancient clairvoyance. Man experienced a real process, an actual happening. And in modern man the process is there just the same, only he cannot inwardly experience it.

Now those spiritual Beings with whom the ancient sages could have real intercourse did not enlighten them only in regard to the vital fluids from which this micro-cosmic universe was born but also in regard to the life-giving air, to the air which man takes in with his breath and which then spreads through his whole organism. This air which spreads itself over the whole of the microcosm, renders the shapes therein indistinct. The wonderful etheric universe in miniature begins, directly the breath contacts it, to become indefinite, That which formerly consisted of a myriad forms, is unified, because the ‘astral’ man lives in the airy element, just as the etheric man lives in the fluids. The astral being of man lives in this airy element and by the breaking up of the etheric thoughts, by the metamorphosis of etheric thoughts into a force, the will is born from the working of the ‘astral man’ in the ‘air man.’ And together with the will there arise the forces of growth which are connected with the will.

This knowledge again expressed a great deal more than is suggested nowadays by the abstract word ‘will.’ It is a concrete process. The astral lays hold of the airy element and spreads over that which is etheric and fluidic. And thereby a real process is set up which appears in outer nature at a different stage, when something is burnt. This process was conceived by the ancients as the sulphur-process. And from the sulphur-process there unfolded that which was then experienced in the soul as will.

In olden times men did not use the abstract word think to express something that arose in the mind as a picture. When a real knower spoke about ‘thinking’ he spoke of the salt-process just described. Nor did he speak in an abstract way of the ‘will’ but of the astral forces laying hold of the airy element in man, of the sulphur-process from which the will is born. Willing was a process of concrete reality and it was said that the adjustment between the two — for they are opposite processes — was brought about by the mercury-process, by that which is fluid and yet has form, which swings to and fro from the etheric nature to the astral nature, from the fluidic to the aeriform. The abstract ideas which were gradually evolved by Scholasticism and have since been adopted by modern science, did not exist for the thinkers of olden times. If they had been confronted with our concepts of thinking, feeling and willing they would have felt rather like frogs in a vessel from which all the air has been pumped. This is how our abstract concepts would have appeared to the thinkers of old. They would, have said: It is not possible for the soul to live or breathe with concepts like this. For the thinkers of old never spoke of a purely abstract will-process, of a purely abstract thought-process, but of a salt-process, of a sulphur-process, and they meant thereby, something that on the one hand is of the nature of soul-and-spirit and on the other of a material-etheric nature. To them, this was a unity and they perceived how the soul works everywhere in the bodily organism.

The writings of the Middle Ages which date back to the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries still showed traces of this ancient faculty of perception and of a knowledge that was at the same time inner experience. This kind of knowledge had faded away at the time of Giordano Bruno, Jacob Boehme and Bacon of Verulam. Ideas had become abstract; man was obliged to look, not into his own being but out into nature. I have told you that our concepts to-day would have made the wise men of old feel like frogs exhausted by lack of air. We, however, find it possible to exist with such ideas. The majority of people when they speak of thinking, feeling and willing, consider them at most mirror-pictures of external nature which appear in man. But precisely in our age it is possible to attain to what in olden times was not possible. Man lost the spontaneous, inner activity which gives birth to knowledge. In the interval which has elapsed since the fifteenth century, man has lost the capacity to discover anything when he merely looks into his inner being. He therefore looks out into nature and evolves his abstract concepts. None the less it is possible so to intensify these concepts that they can again be filled with content because they can be experienced. We are, of course, only at the very beginning of this phase of development, and anthroposophical Spiritual Science tries to be such a beginning.

All the processes I have described above — the salt process, the sulphur-process — are nowhere to be found in this form in external nature; they are processes which can only be known by man as taking place in his image being. In outer nature there transpires something which is related to these processes as the processes in a corpse are related to those in a living man. The salt- and sulphur-processes spoken of by modern chemistry are those which the old Folk-Wisdom living in Jacob Boehm conceived as taking place within a corpse. Such processes are dead, whereas they were once filled with inner life. And as he observed them in their living state, man saw a new world — a world which is not the world surrounding him on earth.

The ancients, then, were able with the help of their inwardly experienced knowledge, to see that which is not of the earth, which belongs to a different world. The moment we really understand these salt-and sulphur-processes we see the pre-earthly life of man. For earthly life differs from the pre-earthly life precisely in this: the sulphur- and salt-processes are dead in the external world of sense; in pre-earthly existence they are living. What we perceive with our senses between birth and death, is dead. The real salt- and sulphur-processes are living when we experience them as they are in pre-earthly existence. In other words, understanding of these processes of which Jacob Boehme speaks in halting words, is a vision of pre-earthly existence. That Jacob Boehme does not speak of pre-earthly existence is due to the fact that he did not really understand it and could only express it in faltering words.

This faculty of man to look back into pre-earthly existence has been lost — lost together with that union with the spiritual Beings who help us to see in the sulphur-process the reality of post-earthly existence. The whole attitude of the human soul has entirely changed. And Giordano Bruno, Jacob Boehme and Lord Bacon of Verulam lived precisely at the time of this change.

In the last lecture I drew your attention to the fact that of the way man felt himself placed in the universe in earlier times not the faintest notion remains to-day. Consequently no great importance is attached to information which dates back beyond comparatively recent times.

Here in Dornach we have given many performances of the play of the Three Kings. This story of the visit of the Three Kings to the Child Jesus is also given in the old German song of the “Heliand.” You are aware that it dates back to a comparatively early period of the Middle Ages and that it originated in Central Europe. There is something remarkable here. It is obvious that something else is connected with this visit of the Three Kings from the East. These Kings relate that they have come from regions where conditions were very different from what they now find (i.e., at the beginning of our era). They tell us that they are the descendants of ancestors who were possessed of a wisdom incomparably greater than any contemporary wisdom. They speak of an ancestor far back in time — an ancestor who was able to hold converse with his God. And when he came to die, this ancestor assembled all his family and told them of what his God had revealed to him, namely, that in the course of time a World-King would appear whose coming would be heralded by a star.

When search is made for an indication of this ancestor, we find — and even literature points to this — that he is Balaam, mentioned in the fourth book of Moses in the Old Testament. These three Holy Kings from the East, therefore, are referring to Balaam, the son of Beor, of whom it is related in the fourth Book of Moses that he held converse with his God and that he regulated his whole earthly life in accordance with that converse.

In short, when we examine the facts, they tell us that at the time when this old German poem originated, a consciousness still existed of ages when men had intercourse with the Gods. A very real conception of this still remained, with men. Again here, we have an indication of something which the contemplation of history revealed to these people and which proves to us that we have passed from those olden times when men felt themselves placed in a living universe, into a Philistine age. For our civilisation is really a Philistine civilisation. Even those who believe that they have grown out of it are by no means so opposed to Philistinism that they would find it possible to accept such traditions as that of Balaam being the ancestor of the Three Kings. Such people have by no means grown beyond Philistinism. The most that could be said of them is that they are ‘Bohemians!’

These things indicate what a mighty change has taken place in the attitude of the human soul. Centuries ago it was known that with their dreamy clairvoyant faculties men were able to observe the actual working of such processes as the sulphur-process and the salt-process. And because of this they were able to see into the pre-earthly state of existence.

Certain people who did not desire the upward progress, but rather the retrogression of humanity, but who were nevertheless initiated in a certain sense, saw in advance that human beings would lose this capacity; that a time would come when nothing would be known any longer about pre-existence. And so they laid it down as a dogma that there is no pre-existent life, that man’s soul is created together with his physical body. The fact of pre-existence was shrouded in the darkness of dogma. That was the first step downwards of what had once been knowledge of man’s place in the universe. It was a step downwards into ignorance for it is not possible to understand man if one part of his existence is obliterated, especially so important a part as his pre-existent life.

Now Jacob Boehme, Giordano Bruno and Lord Bacon of Verulam lived at a time when this insight into pre-existent life had faded away. And moreover the age had not yet dawned when the inner experiencing of knowledge was to give place to a spiritual perception of external nature, whereby man, who can no longer find himself in his inner being, finds himself again in nature outside. For a long time there had been Initiates who wished to lead mankind on the downward path. Such Initiates did not desire that the new faculty of insight — which was exactly the reverse of the old clairvoyance — should make headway. And they tried by means of dogma to replace the new form of knowledge by mere faith and belief in the life after death. And so, in Giordano Bruno's time, dogmatic decrees had wiped out the possibility of knowledge of pre-existent life and of life after death. Giordano Bruno stood there wrestling — wrestling more forcibly than Jacob Boehme and much more forcibly than Lord Bacon. Giordano Bruno stood there among the men of his time, unable to transmute the Dominican wisdom that lived in him into a true conception of the universe. And he expressed in poetic language the somewhat indefinite views which he was able to evolve.

But the knowledge which Giordano Bruno possessed in so nebulous a form must give birth to a definite and precise understanding of man in the universe and the universe in man, not by means of a recrudescence of inner clairvoyance but by means of new clairvoyant faculties acquired by free spiritual activity.

With these words I have indicated what must take place in the evolution of mankind. And in our day humanity is faced with the fact that the will to attain this higher knowledge is violently opposed and hated by numbers of people. This too is apparent in events of which history tells. And when we understand these events we also understand why it is that bitter opposition arises to anthroposophical conceptions of the world.




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