Man's Eternal Biography
questions — and we all
do at times — whether human thought can penetrate into world reality
or has to stay outside and resign, can be told to cure himself by reading
Goethe's little book on the Metamorphosis of Plants. The atmosphere
of this kingdom touches him so immediately that he can sense the healing
effect at once. Nature herself speaks through these lines, gently but
convincingly. Man is readmitted to the context of the world.
is how the little book begins.
who observes the growth of plants in some measure will soon come
to notice how certain of their outer parts sometimes change their
form and pass into the shape of their neighboring parts, at times
completely, at other times more or less.
for instance, the simple flower turns into a filled blossom when,
instead of stamens and anthers, petals develop, which are either
perfectly identical in shape and color with the rest of the corolla,
or else bear visible marks of their origin.
however, how the plant in this manner is able to go a step backwards
and to reverse the order of growth, we become all the more attentive
to the regular path of Nature; and we grow familiar with the laws
of change according to which she produces one part by way of the
other and how she enacts the most varied shapes by the modification
of a single organ.”
essence of planthood hovers around these phrases which imitate the coming
forth and recession of parts by the rise and fall of verbal expression.
The ebb and flow of growth and change pulsates in every clause. The
words breathe adequacy and competence.
on such sentences does not mean to rest. On the contrary, it means to
follow a ceaseless but quiet flux. The metamorphosis is a liquid, not a
rigid concept; and yet it can be “formed”. To speak of
minerals, stones and crystals requires a quite different style of
description, and the concepts shape up accordingly. To grasp the laws of
a crystal we examine the relation of numbers between edges, corners and
planes. The concept is at rest when formed. In a description of plants
we must plunge into the element of time as if into another dimension in
which it spreads. Then such sentences as this one become meaningful:
“Forward and backward the plant is nothing but leaf”.
They teach the reader how to clear the Kantian fences erected to hem in
learns to stay close to nature, to become in other words realistic.
We follow the seed as it germinates and breaks through the ground; we
visualize the seedling unfolding its first comparatively crude leaves;
we catch up with the increasing subtlety of the successive sets of foliage
until we reach the sphere of the blossom. There we must take a leap
to a new level of manifestation. The leaves are drawn together, reduced
in size and arranged in a circle to form the calyx. And the circle expands
again in the corolla; contracts once more into stamens and pistil;
whereupon the latter swells into a fruit or pod by means of a final
expansion. Within the fruit the seed is formed by virtue of final effort
at contraction. Then the cycle is ready to start afresh.
of the juices, the change from the green sap of the leaves to the colorful
juice of the petals, the purification of the “green smell” to
the fragrance of the flower are all part and parcel of the transformation.
It is a process of ennoblement which again returns to the greater density
of stored substances in the seed. The working of light and warmth in
the flower are replaced by the action of the soil which harbors the
seed until it again sprouts.
up a plant type under its normal conditions is not enough to grasp its
possible metamorphosis. It is necessary also to think of the concrete
changes in another environment, in another altitude, landscape or climate.
New potentialities, usually hidden, are brought out. They all belong
to the “range of shapes” covered by the type. Thus the type
can never be exhausted. Its comprehensiveness makes full visualization
impossible. By an inner act of merging the possible shapes we must try
to get hold of it in spite of its evasiveness. It is a matter of holding
fast the “Proteus”, as Goethe called it, and of preventing
it from escaping. If we succeed in this we know what he meant when calling
it a form with which nature continuously plays, as it were, and by playing
brings forth the manifold. Nature is immensely rich, so she can play
with her wealth.
notice that in this search for the type we do not move away from the
visible forms but follow them through their transitions. We do not desert
sense appearance but try to penetrate into it more fully, until we wrest
from it the evasive invisible form-core. It may be a merry game of hide
and seek; but it also can become a desperate struggle. Goethe knew the
latter, too. It was in such a mood that he wrote to Schiller, “Since
your departure I have been continually beaten with fists by the angel of
empiricism; but — in order to defy him and put him to shame —
I have set up a schematic diagram”. He who wants to follow Goethe
does well to keep these words in mind. The way into the depths of nature
is beset with disheartening experience.
* * *
us report on some results of such efforts as they
were undertaken with the help of Rudolf Steiner and following the path
the development of the parts in the plant upwards to the region of flower
and fruit we can have before us what Goethe called a spiritual ladder.
Now the peculiar thing about most plants is that the steps of this ladder
remain standing after the process has run its course. The foliage still
is visible when the flower is formed; and even when the seeds ripen
the leaves may persist. Thus the succession of phases leaves behind
a kind of shadow in space, to help us confirm the truth which our spirit
is after. This provides a particular satisfaction for the student. Even
the dried up and withered plant still reminds him of the ladder to which
it owes its unfoldment.
different with the metamorphosis of animals. Take the case of the insects
with their familiar transformations. From the egg hatches the caterpillar
as a simple segmented shape with only the most necessary inner organs
and outer appendages. In its interior a mighty revolution occurs after
a few moultings. One day, as if in a sudden resolve, the caterpillar
becomes a chrysalis (pupa). It ceases to feed, shortens its body, thickens
its fore-end, spins a supporting thread, and wiggles out of its skin.
The latter shrinks to a shapeless remnant. Had we not followed the process
with our eyes we could not behold the previous stage since this is gone.
We must look back in time, and not simply look at the region below the
flower as we can do in the case of the plant.
is even more violent when the butterfly or moth hatches. The expert,
of course, sees a number of marks which point toward details of the
shape which is to come. Yet the breaking through of the butterfly is
a sudden revelation nevertheless, a powerful leap in the realm of form,
the appearance of something quite new. The tender creature, now equipped
with long slender legs and antenna, creeps a little distance upwards
and begins to fill its wings with living lymph so that they spread fully
in a few minutes. Presently the ultimate shape (imago) is visible with
its design and all the colors and marks, while the chrysalis is an empty
shell. Again, the previous phase is gone. Only the top of the spiritual
ladder is now physically present; the last sprig but one has been
sacrificed and has faded out of sight.
The act of
inwardly visualizing this succession from egg to butterfly requires more
concentration than following a plant because there are no “standing
sprigs” left. We must give ourselves over to the flux of shapes
which replace one another. There is not only succession but substitution
of one phase for another. Each step cancels the previous one and absorbs
into itself the forces which had worked in it. In the plant we have
the refinement of the juices which continues as long as the plant itself
lasts. In the insect we find the air penetrating more deeply with every
step. The caterpillar has small bunches of breathing tubes which go only
a short distance into the interior from the lateral openings (stigmata).
In the butterfly the air rushes into the body in widely ramified tubes,
dries it out and even penetrates into the head. The whole creature seems
now shaped by the agile and changeable element of the air. And the air
claims the butterfly; so it wings its way through it, whereas the blossom
remains filled with juices, though in utmost refinement. The leap from
chrysalis to butterfly reaches farther than the leap from the bud to
the flower. The bursting forth of design and color on the butterfly
is a different process from flowering. In the blossom the color seems
to be merely breathed on to the surface. In the animal the color breaks
through from the inner seat of life. This is why even the inner organs
of the butterfly may be colored bright yellow or crimson.
Goethe's attitude, we experience the contrast between animal and plant
metamorphosis, we find that a new organ is disclosed in us. We actually
sense that in the animal another agent is manifest which does not only
mold one form into another in traceable continuity, but which lifts
one form into the next over a gap. (In spiritual science this agent
is called the astral body, while the “Proteus” which molds
the plant is called the etheric body.)
The seeker for nature's
secret must learn to overleap this gap, or the “hiatus”
as Goethe called it. For this, more courage is required than for the
tracing of the plant's form-flux. We must, as it were, hold our breath
while we overleap the abyss separating the distinct stages which replace
each other. Doing this, we perform a different act of cognition from
that needed for the plant study. This act is able to grasp that the
agent (the astral body) is manifest once more in the many-colored world
of the animal's sensations which are lacking in the plant. From here,
the path opens up to follow the various archetypes of animals in their
divergent directions. Mere plastical molding and remolding of forms
is no longer sufficient for such a task.
learns thus to read the hieroglyphs of the plant and animal forms in their
characteristic difference. He understands why Rudolf Steiner emphasized
the gaps between the realms of nature as especially noteworthy. Seeing
these gaps, which current science tries to disregard or to minimize,
he develops the organs to bridge them.
Wherever an abyss has to be crossed by an effort of cognition
he must learn to hold his breath and then find himself on the other
side, changed — it is true — yet as the same person. From the
abyss, or hiatus, shines forth the light which illumines the difference
between the etheric body which creates form after form in plants, and
the astral body (or sentient body) in the animals, which breaks in upon
the mere living structure, just as the air bursts into and transforms
the butterfly from the preparatory stages.
* * *
most difficult leap is required when we pass from the metamorphosis
of animals to that of man. Every attempt to fill the gap by searching
for intermediary forms (missing links) detracts from the important and
decisive experience which awaits the seeker here.
with the “angel of empiricism” is transferred to a new field
of study, not directly linked with the comparison of visible bodily
shapes. In order to acquire a grasp of the metamorphosis of man, we
must learn to apply our “morphological sense” to an altogether
new kind of “shaping up” of things in the human sphere. It
was a fundamental discovery of Rudolf Steiner when he first found where
this sphere is to be looked for. It is in the shape of the biography.
Studies in anatomy can only serve as a preparation, here, to sharpen
the eyes for the expressive revelation of individualized forms. The
biological viewpoint must yield to the biographical. Instead of comparing
the co-operation of the organs in the body we must direct our attention
to the interplay of the periods of the individual course of life
of the popularity of biographies in our time we are still quite unfamiliar
with such a new way of looking at an individual life story of a human
being, as distinct from the accumulation of life incidents of an animal.
In our slip-shod way we speak of the life story of a pen or pencil when
we are interested in the way it is manufactured. Of course, it is not a
real life led by the pencil. But even the individual story which describes
the life of an animal should not be called a biography. For there is
the following fundamental difference which we must learn to perceive.
The series of
events which happen to an animal, even a domestic animal, is an expression
of the character of the species. They are an individual example of what
happens to any of its members. All occurrences are typical in so far
as they might as well have happened to another individual. We like to
read about them for this very reason, although we are not always conscious
of this. In studying, for instance, the incidents in the life of a dog we
find them interesting because they illustrate a “dog's life”.
Another individual could easily have been substituted. The so-called
biography of the individual animal is in fact an exemplary life story
of the kind to which it belongs.
of events, however, which enter the life of a man is characteristic
for this very man and for no other. He meets these events because he
is this individual person. There is not a single trait in the biography
without a secret relationship to the individuality in question. If
we draw the life portrait of an individuality we can use the destiny
of the species “man” merely as a more or less dim background.
All the salient features have to be entered in contrast to this background
and have to be looked at as an expression of this individuality.
environment, far from merely shaping the life, serves to throw its unique
character into sharper profile. Social relationships, however close and
important, merely help to emphasize the originality of the design. Man
meets the circumstances and meets friends and foes as if he himself had
called upon them to meet him. The individuality performs his “walk
of life” as if he were in a secret agreement with the circumstances,
even with those which must be called adverse.
have here described in a general way assumes an incomparable fullness
of life as soon as we approach individual examples. Think for instance of
Goethe on his Italian journey. In the Jewish cemetery in Venice he hits
upon a sheep's skull half buried in the sand. His companion picks it up
and jokingly calls it an old Jew's head. Goethe, at one glance, sees what
the companion overlooks, namely that this skull “by chance”
has broken in three parts, an anterior, middle and posterior section.
Something tremendous is demonstrated for Goethe before his very eyes,
a secret law of nature has stepped forth into the light of the day. It
was the law which Goethe had anticipated in his anatomical studies, the
concrescence of the animal skull from transformed and remolded vertebra'.
This find is the confirming answer to a problem long harbored in his
thought. This answer comes from outside and is directed to Goethe.
deny that this occurrence is characteristic for Goethe's individuality?
That it could not have happened this way to anybody else? This event,
we may say, using a significant manner of speech, looks very much like
Goethe. Every biography teems with incidents of this kind. Things which
approach the individuality from without have the “look” of
him who is approached. What happens to a human individuality bears his
own stamp and seal.
true whether or not we deal with a great person for even in the humblest
life such traits abound. We all know what we mean when a clumsy and
awkward fellow has again some minor misfortune and we say jokingly:
this could only happen to him. What we say here of the unlucky bird
is true also for things more important and serious. It is a general
law. And we can find here an essential difference from animality. Every
incident, adverse or favorable, in a man's life makes some contribution
to the traits of his soul and spirit portrait. It helps to make up the
document of his true Self, to use the adequate spiritual-scientific
a new approach to the concrete knowledge of the real ego in man, as
distinct from the generalized soul nature of the animal. It is this
ego which, as an indivisible entity, designs its own portrait in the
biography, and thus can be read from it as from a reliable document.
are to interpret this document adequately we must study it also from
another angle. The point is to recognize not only the telling character
of the incidents, but also the telling way in which the individuality
gains by meeting them. Not only the events come to face man, and bear
his imprint in advance, but his imprint is also visible in what he makes
of them. He extracts from them, as the metal from the crude ore, a treasure
which is carried over into the subsequent phase of his life. We can
see the individuality at work in wresting from life (whether it know
it or not) the contribution to its own growth and maturation.
great men never cease to reap such harvest; they are never at the end
of learning. They continue until the last day of their lives to seek
the secret nourishment for their inner-most core, and it is this that
makes them great. Even while the body becomes feeble, the posture bent
forward, with only the eyes retaining their lustre, the inner core goes
on growing and may reveal itself in the still living gesture and in
the precious content of weighty though sparingly used words. This is
the miracle surrounding the human metamorphosis that, even in the decay
of the bodily instrument, growth goes on within and leads to increasing
observe the blessing growth of an inner seed, an interiorized seed-forming
process, as it were, aspiring to maturation while the hardening shell
of the body separates from it. We know, of course, that the seed continues
ripening only when the ego remains awake and continues the subtle alchemy
which transforms experience. It is all a matter of that “openness
to the world” which Goethe developed throughout his life and which
will serve as an everlasting example for the striver after knowledge.
is an essentially moral attitude. It is a devotion to experience nourished
by the confidence in its ever deepening aspects as we grow older. It
is also a warding off of the interference of subjectivity, the effort
to make oneself into an ever more purified organ, molded by the world's
Such objectivity is
eminently needed when it conies to the contemplation of our own incidents
of life in the light of our “eternal” biography. It can only
be done if we discard illusions concerning our own importance and value.
The best training for such studies is, let it again be said, to study
the metamorphosis of plants, — a veritable school of objectivity.
The growth of our own core which we are so anxious to observe can only
be secured by devoting ourselves to studies in which there is little
cause for self-flattery, or for a premature satisfaction in the possession
organ which grows from the study of human walks of life is likely to
perceive ever more clearly what can be found only in the metamorphosis
of man, namely, the “track” of the spiritual ego as it leads
through an earthly life, but also to follow it up backwards into previous
and forwards into subsequent phases. To this organ, as it grew in Rudolf
Steiner, the re-embodiment of the true ego in subsequent earth lives
becomes a perceptible reality. What was needed, as we said above, for the
study of an animal metamorphosis, in the way of an ability to “hold
the breath” in crossing an abyss separating two forms, is needed
to a vastly higher degree for tracing the individuality of man through
successive “incarnations”. The sprigs of the spiritual ladder,
so visibly close in the realm of plants and already partially interrupted
in the realm of the animals, are widely separated in man's metamorphosis.
Centuries pass between two embodiments and there is no resemblance left
between two sprigs, or stages, which could be grasped by a mere sense
for the similarity of shapes. The ego-tracking sense (also called spiritual
intuition) must work independently of any outer resemblances in order
to follow a spiritual ladder flung far through the ages of history with
long intermittent abodes of the ego in a purely spiritual existence.
There is one thread, however, which connects the various incarnations
in spite of all the differences in the shape of the bare appearance.
This thread is of a moral character and can therefore be understood
long before the student can hope to find for himself concrete examples
of actual reembodiment of one individuality through the ages. The leap
from one incarnation to the other keeps the moral continuity between
deeds and omissions in the one, and consequent circumstances in the
next embodiment. But every new incarnation is also a fresh start as
a guarantee that freedom becomes attainable.
[See note 1]
of the butterfly hatching from its chrysalis can be retained as a picture
of the connection of one incarnation with the other under the one condition
that we grasp and apply it in the sense of a moral development. Yet
this very transfer of the metamorphosis into the sphere of the continuity
of deed and educating environment makes us stand in awe before the ability
of Rudolf Steiner to bridge the gaps of centuries in his ego-beholding
vision and to show how actual cases of human metamorphosis, as he described
them, bear witness to the super-human morality which pervades the spiritual
[See note 2]
reader wants to get a concrete feeling of the atmosphere of what we
just called super-human morality let him dwell on the following example
which Rudolf Steiner gave.
a man who was born with a crippled and frail body, with a bodily vessel
so imperfect that in it the soul and spirit could not find their adequate
expression. He was born, in other words, an idiot; which means a human
being in which the pitiful shortcomings of the body stood in violent
contrast to the efforts of the ego struggling within it. The experiences
of this humble individual were, however, not in vain. In the life after
death a fruit ripened from all inferior feelings, from suffering and
humiliation. This fruit was carried into a subsequent life as a seed,
and when it unfolded a personality developed which could become a social
benefactor of mankind.
We relate this example here so that the reader may dwell on it as a
student of plant forms may dwell on the change from leaf to flower.
No further words of explanation are needed. It is the atmosphere that
counts. We can work and grow as human beings in such an atmosphere.
The metamorphosis of plants makes our imagination alive and pliable.
The metamorphosis of animals adds an awakeness which can endure in spite
of vivid and thorough transformations which we learn to connect. The
metamorphosis of man can teach us to recognize the seed of eternity
which the Divine world has planted into him that he may grow into a
* * *
we find the supreme form of metamorphosis, which is the reincarnation
of man's spiritual and moral core.
The seeker for
reality who has followed the path here described, or at least recognized
its value as a method, will understand why natural science can become
a preparatory course for higher knowledge. It is in this sense that
we have referred here to Goethe's pioneer work and to Rudolf Steiner
as the one who continued with modern means what Goethe began and left
as a task for our age.
on the path we have pursued here we can recognize that the metamorphosis
of man may be spoken of as the supreme and most explicit manifestation
of a phenomenon which appears in a more imperfect display in the kingdoms
below man. Reincarnation, then, is the fully developed archetype of
metamorphosis. The metamorphoses in the other kingdoms are reflections,
as it were, on two lower levels. They are after-images. The leaps in
the metamorphosis of the insects appear as the shadow image of the moral
development in man. (Hence the
image of the butterfly for the soul on ancient tombstones). On a level
below the animal there is mere molding and remolding of forms as we
see it with delight among the plants. The transformation no longer bears
any hint concerning a moral implication, yet it appears all the more
radiant with a purified beauty of its own. Even below the plants, in
the realm of mere physical agencies, among stones and rocks and crystals,
we may surmise a faint reflection of a metamorphosis deprived of molding
life yet apparent in causes and effects grown into blind agencies.
causality, as in reincarnation, would be the perfect prototype; animal
metamorphosis its first after-image; plant metamorphosis its second
after-image; and the law of outer cause and effect its last faint
reflection and shadow.
things transient are but a semblance”, these final words of the
Faust drama are then filled with a new concrete sense for the quest
for reality. The truth they contain no longer belittles the value of
concrete search in nature. Ascending and descending the spiritual ladder
in the realms of nature and in the realm of man, the new scientist knows
what it means to battle with the angel of empiricism. He knows that
this angel, after having beaten man with his fists, can ultimately stoop
to bless him.
Note 1. Cf. H. Poppelbaum:
“Destiny and Freedom”.
Note 2. G. Wachsmuth:
“Reincarnation as a Phenomenon of Metamorphosis”.
New York. 1937.