Metamorphosis of Death
of death deepens as we grow older
and feel compelled to face it. Youth, up to our era, has claimed the
privilege to disregard the mystery of life's end as it seems so remote.
Yet now the war has brought millions of young men, and even women and
children so close to the dreaded “dark frontier”
that they are forced to fasten their inner eye upon it. At no time was
it more necessary to penetrate the realm beyond this border.
asserts that he gives a “realistic” picture of death. But
equipped with outer observation alone he has nothing real to say about
what happens. He can enumerate the bodily symptoms of the departure
of life; but he cannot describe what is coming when we say that death
approaches. The “coming” of death is for him only a figure
of speech. There is not anything that comes, only something that goes.
The descriptions which the
traditional religions give of death and the realm of the
“here-after” have an appeal to human hopes and fears which
greatly endangers their credibility; for hope and fear are bad companions
on the way to truth.
science tells us nothing about death, and religion tells us too much,
the seeker has to look for himself and so he may find the following
approach acceptable. It starts from the obvious fact that we mean quite
different things when we speak of the death of a plant, or an animal,
or a human being.
* * *
that a plant seed dies when it falls into the
soil, or is planted into it. A new plant springs from it while the seed
gives up its individual existence. This, we must admit, is not really
death, but only the falling away of a husk while the core stays more
alive than ever. The source of life has renewed its power while its
outer vessel broke away.
the same when a whole plant withers while fruit or seed-pods remain.
Life withdraws from the body while it shifts to those parts which guarantee
its continuation. This is no actual death, and we can only figuratively
call it thus. Life passes on to a part which is visibly prepared in
advance as its seat and vessel.
we must speak differently. The parent individual need not die when the
progeny is formed, although many lower animals do. Butterflies, for
instance, and moths, and many of the smaller forms die after depositing
their eggs as if this were the culmination of their very life. The mother
animal may even shelter the eggs for a while with her very body. Here
is a gesture of giving up the existence to secure the offspring. Dying
becomes, for the first time, an act of consummation carried out in the
sphere of life. In the plant it is life itself that withdraws from
the parent body and concentrates in the seed. In the animal, the dying
parent passes something on to the progeny by way of sacrifice.
higher animal dies, especially a domestic animal which lived with us
for some time, we feel it to be a semblance of the death of man. Here
we do not speak figuratively if we call it death. And yet it is a far
cry from the individual death of man. For a human being goes through
death and in some measure participates in it through his own experience.
We know from many incidents that a man can be conscious in a higher
degree that he is passing away. Not only does something happen to him,
but he is doing something. It always means some kind of deed when a
man dies. The falling away of the body is only an outer manifestation
of the individual who drops it.
Thus we see the
secret of death reveal itself in man after a study of the preparatory
fragmentary revelations in the kingdoms below man. In man, death becomes
an act. “Some” part of man must have said “yes”
to death before he goes through it.
example of a person conscious of this nature of death we find in Goethe.
Once after the death of a friend he spoke (to his friend Falk) as if
the deceased friend had done the dying. When Falk expressed his surprise
at this with the words: You seem to indicate that the dying person has
deliberately gone, Goethe said with a smile: “Yes, I sometimes
take the liberty of calling it thus.” —
shapes of death thus stand before our eyes. An the plant death is another
name for the creation of new life; in the animal it is a dying off in
a sacrifice for the progeny, and in man it becomes an actual departure.
Previous ages, which had a distinct notion of these differences, would
use different words for the three manifestations of death, as we still do
when we say “withering” for the plant, “dying off”
for the animal, and “going through death” for man. But in
most cases we use the word death indiscriminately and the distinct
differences, as happens so often, are lost in abstraction.
* * *
into the supersensible is able to add important aspects to
our tentative description. It allows us to give to the phenomena the
comprehensive setting in which they belong. The background is brought
out in a manner which greatly extends our understanding.
How much such a deeper
understanding is needed we see at once when studying how plants produce
and scatter their seeds. There seems to be an enormous waste in numbers,
far beyond the actual need for securing the continuity of the species.
Of course, everybody knows the “scientific explanation”
for this overproduction. The species has to cope with an enormous rate
of annihilation, we are told; the slim chance of survival enforces on
the plant what appears as waste. Yet this is a typically intellectual
interpretation, and it makes use of the concepts of supply and need
as if we were talking of an industrial problem. As in many other so-called
explanations of the 19th century there is a hidden anthropomorphism
in it. We ought to be more wary of our tendency to “humanize”
nature. Furthermore, the fact remains that the perishing seeds play
a large part in the context of life; for they are needed for many other
organisms to live on. Where it comes to growth and propagation nature can
never be found thrifty. To give another example there is the unbelievably
lavish production of pollen. The conifer woodlands of Norway shed such
a tremendous quantity of their fertilizing flower-dust, that the wind
sweeps it into the sea so as to color it yellow for miles off the shore.
Billions of small oceanic organisms live on this pollen, and they in
turn feed the larger inhabitants of the sea. And what shall we say of
the clouds of golden dust shed by the ragweeds in summer? Everyone of
the uncountable pollen grains has the potentiality of reaching a seed
vessel. But most of them never do any fertilizing, they are taken up
into another context of life and serve in a way which is foreign to
their “ordinary” biological purpose.
the significance of this deviation? Supersensible perception, with its
well developed methods, can supply a surprising answer. It is able to
trace the visible process where it passes over into the bordering invisible
realm. Here we find not those anonymous “forces” which our
intellect infers, but a borderland populated by supersensibly perceptible
beings who are engaged in a particular activity.
[See note 1]
They take over the sprouting-power which is not used and carry it to
another destination. Seen with the ordinary eyes there is a great waste
and an ununderstandable deflection of nature's products from their original
purpose. Seen with the eyes of spirit there is a wisdom-filled transfer,
a leading over of the growth-powers which are unused into another channel
of development. For through the activity of these mediators the spent
forces are transmitted to those places where new forms and species make
their appearance. Needless to say that physical sight would never be
able to trace this connection, because it loses sight of the forces
at the moment when the seed or the pollen perishes. But the giving up
of visible existence is a gain for another part of life's comprehensive
plan. New species do not arise out of the “blue sky”, but
from the sacrifice of sprouting potentialities in other quarters.
Steiner first described this amazing trend of hidden continuity he added
that the same transfer also holds good for the innumerable fish germs
which constantly seem doomed to perish in the ocean. Indeed if we could
see all of them as we see the drifting pollen masses in Norway (we do not
see them because they are transparent) the sea would appear a glittering
golden yellow. We must imagine by the very fact that they do not produce
new progeny an immense number of such germs sustain the life of the ocean
down to considerable depths. Serving as food and being fed is part of
nature's wonder-web of “give and take”. The philistine diagrams
of “food chains” in our textbooks are poor and distorted
shadow pictures of a reality which is beyond the reach of an all too
human interpretation. Supersensible insight helps man to restore the
image of nature's plan to its pristine grandeur.
this image the threads of life and death are intertwined. One could
not be without the other. Withering and decay are servants of life in
a very concrete fashion. Giving up a trend of possible development allows
life to spring up elsewhere and to continue its course in an entirely
new direction. Part of the path which life traverses lies in a sphere
hidden from the senses and must be traced supersensibly. Yet with these
hidden links supplied by supersensible research a total picture arises
which then makes sense. There is no trivial thriftiness in the sense
of human economy. Rather does nature sustain life by generously spending
of its treasure.
for spiritual insight is given a wonderful opportunity to gain practical
experience in the art of spending. First he delves into nature's design
and gradually learns to adapt his thoughts to it. He sees what philistine
Darwinism has made of the interpreters of nature. But he learns something
more. He learns that thoughts can be used for two different purposes.
The one is the ordinary purpose of applying them to the understanding
of some manifestation of the outer world. The other is to retain a thought
and harbor it in the soul for some time until it grows into something
else. It undergoes a transformation into a living faculty.
the wheat grain can have two purposes, to serve as human food and to
be planted into the ground to produce new grain; so a thought can be,
as it were, used up in the explanation of a phenomenon; but it can
also be used for its sprouting potency. Rudolf Steiner has deliberately
drawn this comparison. The grain when eaten and digested is taken out
of the line of its natural destination; the grain when planted is allowed
to complete the cycle of its inherent possibilities. A thought can be
applied right away after it has been formed. It shows then its practical
value. It can, however, be used as a seed, cultivated as it were, and
allowed to find its way back into the realm from which it was taken.
Instead of exploiting its trivial explanatory value we permit it to
reveal its meditative value.
we can grasp the paramount role which meditation plays on the path of
developing higher knowledge. The student learns to practice meditation
because of its effect on the awakening of inner organs. This is a slow
process and requires patience. (In fact here our study of life and death
has already reached a point where its value as an exercise can be
of nature in terms of competition, extinction and chance survival is
a good example of a short-term thought, too quickly and cheaply applied.
Its real value for the understanding of nature's method is very limited.
It does not reach the level on which nature devises her designs. She works
along various lines with one and the same of her foster-children. The seed
is an outstanding example. Death is part of her scheme of furthering
life. She knows how to develop side-line possibilities. If we follow
her with our thoughts we must let them grow in meditation so as to become
pliable themselves and able of metamorphosis.
“pliable” thought concerning nature's operation is contained
in a dictum of Goethe's about death in nature. “Nature,” he
says, “has invented death in order to have more life”. This
sounds like a paradox, but paradoxes allow us to look at a thing from
two angles at the same time. There is more truth in such a seemingly
self-contradictory saying than in cheaper one-way-formulations.
* * *
of death in nature at large is, however, only
the first of the secrets on which supersensible insight can shed light
by discovering connections of the kind mentioned above. By greatly
deepening his research Rudolf Steiner was able to follow up the role
of death into the very body of man. It is not only nature around man
which has within it the element of death as a necessary means for creating
life. Death penetrates into the architecture and the processes of man's
body, it bestows on him a gift without which he could not be called
a human being.
who look for merely pleasing discoveries in higher knowledge such an
insight may not be very popular. But even ordinary physiology can show
certain facts which point the way to it. The amount of life in the various
organic systems of man is found to be greatly different. There are regions
obviously filled with life: the digestive, glandular and generative
organs, most of them in the lower parts of the organism. All of them
work for the sustenance of life in the rest of the body and accordingly
have great powers of healing and regeneration. It is the opposite with
the nervous system and the sense organs, and — though to a minor
extent — with the organs for breathing. All of these organs reach
their ultimate form rather early in youth and retain very little organic
life afterwards. The human brain even stops its growth when the child
is nine years old.
[See note 2]
This fact is known to ordinary
physiology but it does not make sense unless we consider what Rudolf
Steiner said, namely that the slowing down of growth and the actual
standstill which occur in these organs and especially in the nervous
system, has to do with their task, which is to serve as a basis for
human consciousness. This is not a theory, but a result of supersensible
observation. Death is actually seen to enter into the structure and
processes of these organs and to replace their capacity of sprouting
and growing. There is a partial death in the midst of life, but without
this relative or partial death spreading in his nerve and sense system
man could not awaken to be a conscious being.
then, death has a definite and positive significance for man's life.
It is, of course, somewhat uncanny to think that we carry death within
us in such a literal sense. Yet this fact sheds light on many another
fact which belongs to a wider context. We must get accustomed to the
idea that consciousness is a counterpart and even counteractor of life
in the organism. Awakeness is based on a gradual dying away of certain
organs. For supersensible perception life is released from the body,
sacrificed in order to give rise to a faculty which life-sustained organs
could not allow to be developed.
gives something to man, long before it lays final hold on the totality
of his physical organs. Death appears here not as the mere end of life
but as a permanent ingredient in the total structure of man. This is what
distinguishes man from a plant. For in a plant the process of withering
is a phase which follows the period of sprouting and within which the
plant passes over into another context of forces which dissolve the
individual. In man, the individual is sustained all the time while death
does its work in the organism. This work makes him experience his own
separate existence while he is awake. Mere sleep could never give him
insight can be carried further. If the entrance of death into our organism
means a partial awakening, then the complete conquest of our organism
by death would mean a total awakening. This conclusion is fully confirmed
by supersensible perception. Man, when dying, is awakened to a degree
which he never can reach as long as his body has sprouting life within
it. Death releases man into a state of enhanced consciousness.
the help of the new concepts provided by supersensible research —
but understandable without recourse to supersensible faculties — the
student can work his way from one form of death to the other. On the
level of plant existence it is true that death is a device of nature
to produce more organic life. In order to do justice to what happens
in man we must give another form to Goethe's statement which says that
nature has invented death in order to have more life. It is a form which
Goethe could not yet find, but is a metamorphosis which we today can
give to the truth found by him. It runs thus: The world development
has inserted death into man in order to give hint more awakeness.
a next step in painting a true picture of death's role. Needless to
say that the connection pointed out here is hidden from man's ordinary
consciousness. Yet those who have a sense of the metamorphosis of truths
can recognize that Goethe's words are like a seed from which a further
truth was here made to sprout, a truth which concerns man more deeply
than its predecessor.
be quite aware, however, that with this we have not yet touched upon
man's conscious experience of death. Death residing in part of his organism
is not yet death grasped by man himself. It is only death undergone
and unconsciously suffered. And its counterpart in consciousness is
not the awareness of death, but the self-awareness of the individual,
backed as it is by the awareness of the physical world surrounding the
self. Death awakens man, but his attention turns away from the awakening
agent and toward the more familiar region which confronts the senses.
(This is, by the way, another instance of the deflection of a
developmental trend from its essential goal into what appears as a
* * *
metamorphosis of death's role, then, would be the
passing of the human entity through the experience of death. We have
mentioned above that man, even in his present phase of development, can
have this experience of “passing away” and show by the words
he uses that he begins to awaken for a new surrounding not transmitted
by bodily senses. (Numberless cases of this, we are sure, occurred during
the late war.) What interests us here is not the fact of an abstract
“survival”, but the gradual immersion of the human entity,
through death, into a wealth of concrete experience in a surrounding
which was previously hidden. While man dwells in his body he is asleep,
as it were, in respect to this surrounding world. Death when entering
part of the body awakens him for the physical environment; death when
entering the whole body opens the soul's eyes for the spiritual worlds.
So that we can say, with a still further step in our formulation: Higher
powers have given man the experience of death in order to awaken him
that people die differently. There are some who seem gently to pass
over into their new surroundings; and there are others who seem to know
how to die. It is as if they had learned it on a previous occasion,
so they can do it better now. They all, of course, have some experience
of death; but it makes all the difference how much of it they have while
still hovering on the border between the two kinds of knowing. They
bring thereby a greater or less degree of consciousness to bear on the
development which follows death, according to findings of supersensible
* * *
is yet a greater fact about death which has been
brought out by Rudolf Steiner and which the student who has followed
thus far can see as the culmination of the metamorphoses of death.
Reluctant though we feel about indicating it here in a few words, we
cannot refrain from adding them. The reader may find out for himself
in which sense it can be called a last and supreme metamorphosis.
There was one death in
the history of mankind which ranks far above the countless deaths gone
through by human beings. It was done by one being of incomparable
rank. This being was under no necessity to die, because it possessed
full awakeness without it. He need not die, and yet He did die. He had
no need to appear in human shape among men, and yet He did become man.
He became man and yet He was the embodiment in earthly form of the divine
powers who have made man.
We cannot here speak of
the secrets which surround this event. Here we can only compare His death
— the event of Golgotha — with a human death.
[See note 3]
For Him who was begotten out of the divine fullness (the Pleroma of
ancient documents) there was no enlightenment to be gained from the
experience of death. This death was done as a deliberate deed, for the
benefit of those who cannot yet pass through it without fearing
was a seed-planting, too. And in this we grasp the common trend which
runs through all the forms of death, from the humble plant even to this
most glorious manifestation in which death reveals itself in an entirely
new significance. In His passing through death the meaning of all previous
manifestations of death is summed up, and each step is allotted its
place in the successively revealed plan. Here again we must refer to
the almost unbelievable wealth of facts brought out by Rudolf Steiner
on the significance of the Christ event as a unique and unrepeatable
impulse given to the earth and mankind. It must be kept constantly in
mind that here we have selected only one aspect of the whole, namely
the change in the role of death. Further, it ought to be remembered
that our description is not taken from any outer documents, but from
independent investigation by purely spiritual methods. (The outer documents
will be found, on closer examination, to be in keeping with this
be denied that even in the traditional form of the story about Christ
His death plays a vital part. If we follow the trend of our study, as
given above, we need not dogmatically repeat what tradition says about
His death, but we can recognize what was obviously meant by placing
this death, as early Christian tradition does, into the center towards
which every other part of the story gravitates. It is also noteworthy
that in these time-honored teachings the event of His death is called the
mainspring of a new future life on earth, thus using almost an identical
paradox as was used by Goethe when he characterized the secret device
Now, as we said above,
the first form in which a truth may be grasped before it is fully known
may be a paradox. And such paradoxes, as shown above, may be planted as
seeds before the full truth can be told. Hence the inevitable
“obscurity” of the Christian dogma concerning Christ's
death and the corporeal reality of His resurrection. We have not here
the task to lead the reader into an understanding of the whole orbit
of what can be said today concerning these central tenets of Christianity.
It must suffice to state that their substance is akin to what we have
tried to point out here about the significance of death and its successive
shapes. The continuity of these shapes is evident when once again we
try to formulate paradigmatically as follows: The Divine World has
sent Christ to earth in order to bestow on mankind Eternal Life.
last metamorphosis of the secret of death the term “life”
no longer means life in an organic sense but a self-sustained endurance,
as distinct from its preliminary manifestations in the body. And yet
all bodily manifestations are included in the change wrought by the
seed-giving power of Christ's death. Since He dwelt in a human body,
and since with His death this body was given over to the substances
of the earth, a change has begun which alters the very constitution
of terrestrial matter. Matter itself has assumed something of a divine
character and will develop this impulse of respiritualization toward
the future. This is why we can also say: The Divine World has sent
Christ in order to bestow on man and the earth Life Eternal.
that considerably more ought to be said if we were to substantiate the
content of this last formula. If the reader looks for this he must be
referred to Rudolf Steiner's work. Our purpose here was merely to convey
a definite feeling for the gradual metamorphosis which weaves a thread
from one of these sentences to the other when we compare them:
has invented Death in order to have more Life.
The world development has inserted Death into man in order to give him
Higher powers have given man the experience of Death in order to awaken
The Divine World has sent Christ in order that man and the earth receive
these sentences brings out a new side of the significance of death.
Goethe, to be sure, did not have the means, available in our time whereby
to let these truths appear as inherent in the seed of his own words
on death. This we owe to Rudolf Steiner that he led the way from the
Science of Nature to the Science of Spirit.
first phrase, we learn to look at death with the eyes of nature. In
the second, we understand a secret of man's creation as embodied in
his organism. In the third, we grasp the role of death for the future
experience of man. And in the last, we stand in awe before a truth whose
import waits for recognition through successive ages.
Note 1. Compare the “elemental
spirits” of the ancient clairvoyance.
Note 2. A fact hushed in the
Note 3. Compare Rudolf Steiner:
“Christianity as a Mystical Fact”,