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Man's Eternal Biography

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Sketch of Rudolf Steiner lecturing at the East-West Conference in Vienna.

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Man's Eternal Biography

Poppelbaum: Man's Eternal Biography: II. Metamorphosis of Death


Metamorphosis of Death

THE RIDDLE 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.

The scientist 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.

Since 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.

*   *   *

WE SAY 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.

It is 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.

In animals 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.

When a 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.

An outstanding 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.” —

Three 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.

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INSIGHT 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.

What is 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.

When Rudolf 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.

Within 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.

The seeker 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.

Just as 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.

With this 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 tested.)

The explanation 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.

Such a “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.

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THE ROLE 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.

With people 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.

Here, 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.

Death 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 this experience.

But this 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.

Thus with 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.

This is 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.

We must 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 side-channel.)

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A THIRD 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 completely.

We know 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 research.

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THERE 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 annihilation.

His death 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 description.)

It cannot 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 of nature.

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.

In this 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.

We admit 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:

Nature has invented Death in order to have more Life.
The world development has inserted Death into man in order to give him Awakeness.
Higher powers have given man the experience of Death in order to awaken him completely.
The Divine World has sent Christ in order that man and the earth receive Life Eternal.

Each of 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.

In the 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 textbooks.

Note 3. Compare Rudolf Steiner: “Christianity as a Mystical Fact”, 1902.

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