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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: III. Man's Eternal Biography


Man's Eternal Biography

WHOEVER 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.

This is how the little book begins.

“Anyone 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.

Thus, 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.

Noticing, 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.”

The very 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.

To “dwell” 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 man's cognition.

Our imagination 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.

The refinement 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.

Following 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.

Let us 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.

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LET us report on some results of such efforts as they were undertaken with the help of Rudolf Steiner and following the path of Goethe.

In tracing 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.

It is 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.

The change 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.

If, with 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.

The investigator 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.

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THE 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.

The struggle 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 (Lebensgang).

In spite 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.

The succession 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.

Even the 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.

What we 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.

Can we 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.

This is 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 term.

Here is 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.

If we 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.

Indeed 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 priceless beauty.

Here we 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.

This openness 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 revelations themselves.

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 of truths.

The new 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]

The image 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 cosmos. [See note 2]

If the 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.

He describes 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 free being.

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IN MAN, 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.

Looking back 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.

Moral 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.

“All 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”. London.

Note 2. G. Wachsmuth: “Reincarnation as a Phenomenon of Metamorphosis”. New York. 1937.


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