Rudolf steiner

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in the Light of Anthroposophy


translated by George and Mary Adams



First printed 1927 (Anthroposophical Publishing Co.)
2nd edition, 1965
2nd impression of 2nd edition, 1971
3rd impression of 2nd edition, 1975
4th impression of 2nd edition, 1981

The German title of the essay is Die Erziehung des Kindes vom Geschictspunkte der Geisteswissenschaft to be found in Bibl. Nr. 34 in the complete edition in German of Steiner's works.

This English translation is published in agreement with the Rudolf Steiner-Nachlassverwaltung, 4143 Dornach, Switzerland.


The following study forms the substance of a lecture which I gave at various places in Germany. In response to a wish — expressed in many quarters — that it should also be available in print, I have here re-cast it in essay form.

Account should be taken of the remarks which have been added as footnotes.


MUCH that the man of to-day inherits from generations of the past is called in question by his present life. Hence the numerous ‘problems of the hour’ and ‘demands of the age.’ How many of these are occupying the attention of the world — the Social Question, the Women's Question, the various educational questions, hygienic questions, questions of human rights, and so forth! By the most varied means, men are endeavouring to grapple with these problems. The number of those who come on the scene with this or that remedy or programme for the solution — or at any rate for the partial solution — of one or other of them, is indeed past counting. In the process, all manner of opinions and shades of opinion make themselves felt — Radicalism, which carries itself with a revolutionary air; the Moderate attitude, full of respect for existing things, yet endeavouring to evolve out of them something new; Conservatism, which is up in arms whenever any of the old institutions are tampered with. Beside these main tendencies of thought and feeling there is every kind of intermediate position.

Looking at all these things of life with deeper vision, one cannot but feel — indeed the impression forces itself upon one — that the men of our age are in the position of trying to meet the demands involved in modern life with means which are utterly inadequate. Many are setting about to reform life, without really knowing life in its foundations. But he who would make proposals as to the future must not content himself with a knowledge of life that merely touches life's surface. He must investigate its depths.

Life in its entirety is like a plant. The plant contains not only what it offers to external life; it also holds a future state within its hidden depths. One who has before him a plant only just in leaf, knows very well that after some time there will be flowers and fruit also on the leaf-bearing stem. In its hidden depths the plant already contains the flowers and fruit in embryo; yet by mere investigation of what the plant now offers to external vision, how should one ever tell what these new organs will look like? This can only be told by one who has learnt to know the very nature and being of the plant.

So, too, the whole of human life contains within it the germs of its own future; but if we are to tell anything about this future, we must first penetrate into the hidden nature of the human being. And this our age is little inclined to do. It concerns itself with the things that appear on the surface, and thinks it is treading on unsafe ground if called upon to penetrate to what escapes external observation.

In the case of the plant the matter is certainly more simple. We know that others like it have again and again borne fruit before. Human life is present only once; the flowers it will bear in the future have never yet been there. Yet they are present within man in the embryo, even as the flowers are present in a plant that is still only in leaf. And there is a possibility of saying something about man's future, if once we penetrate beneath the surface of human nature to its real essence and being. It is only when fertilized by this deep penetration into human life, that the various ideas of reform current in the present age can become fruitful and practical.

Anthroposophy, by its inherent character and tendency, must have the task of providing a practical conception of the world — one that comprehends the nature and essence of human life. Whether what is often called so is justified in making such a claim, is not the point; it is the real essence of Anthroposophy — and what, by virtue of its real essence, Anthroposophy can be — that here concerns us. For Anthroposophy is not intended as a theory remote from life, one that merely caters for man's curiosity or thirst for knowledge. Nor is it intended as an instrument for a few people, who for selfish reasons would like to attain a higher level of development for themselves. No, it can join and work at the most important tasks of present-day humanity, and further their development for the welfare of mankind. (See Footnote 1)

It is true that in taking on this mission, Anthroposophy must be prepared to face all kinds of scepticism and opposition. Radicals, Moderates and Conservatives in every sphere of life will be bound to meet it with scepticism. For in its beginnings it will scarcely be in a position to please any party. Its premises lie far beyond the sphere of party movements, being founded, in effect, purely and solely on a true knowledge and perception of life. If a man has knowledge of life, it is only out of life itself that he will be able to set himself his tasks. He will draw up no arbitrary programmes, for he will know that no other fundamental laws of life can prevail in the future than those that prevail already in the present. The spiritual investigator will therefore of necessity respect existing things. However great the need for improvement he may find in them, he will not fail to see, in existing things themselves, the embryo of the future. At the same time, he knows that in all things ‘becoming’ there must be growth and evolution. Hence he will perceive in the present the seeds of transformation and of growth. He invents no programmes; he reads them out of what is there. What he thus reads becomes in a certain sense itself a programme, for it bears in it the essence of development. For this very reason an anthroposophical insight into the being of man must provide the most fruitful and the most practical means for the solution of the urgent questions of modern life.

In the following pages we shall endeavour to prove this for one particular question — the question of Education. We shall not set up demands nor programmes, but simply describe the child-nature. From the nature of the growing and evolving human being, the proper point of view for Education will, as it were, spontaneously result.

IF we wish to perceive the nature of the evolving man, we must begin by considering the hidden nature of man as such. What sense-observation learns to know in man, and what the materialistic conception of life would consider as the one and only element in man's being, is for spiritual investigation only one part, one member of his nature: it is his Physical Body. This physical body of man is subject to the same laws of physical existence, and is built up of the same substances and forces, as the whole of that world which is commonly called lifeless. Anthroposophical Science says, therefore: man has a physical body in common with the whole of the mineral kingdom. And it designates as the ‘Physical Body’ that alone in man, which brings the substances into mixture, combination, form, and dissolution by the same laws as are at work in the same substances in the mineral world as well.

Now over and above the physical body, Anthroposophical Science recognizes a second essential principle in man. It is his Life-Body or Etheric Body. The physicist need not take offence at the term ‘Etheric Body.’ The word ‘Ether’ in this connection does not mean the same as the hypothetical Ether of Physics. It must be taken simply as a designation of what will here and now be described. In recent times it was considered a highly unscientific proceeding to speak of such an ‘Etheric Body’; though this had not been so at the end of the eighteenth and in the first half of the nineteenth century. In that earlier time people had said to themselves: the substances and forces which are at work in a mineral cannot of their own accord form the mineral into a living creature. In the latter there must also be inherent a peculiar ‘force.’ This force they called the ‘Vital Force,’ and they thought of it somewhat as follows: the Vital Force is working in the plant, in the animal, in the human body, and produces the phenomena of life, just as the magnetic force is present in the magnet producing the phenomena of attraction. In the succeeding period of materialism, this idea was set aside. People began to say: the living creature is built up in the same way as the lifeless creation. There are no other forces at work in the living organism than in the mineral; the same forces are only working in a more complicated way, and building a more complex structure.

To-day, however, it is only the most rigid materialists who hold fast to this denial of a life-force or vital force. There are a number of natural scientists and thinkers whom the facts of life have taught, that something like a vital force or life-principle must be assumed. Thus modern science, in its later developments, is in a certain sense approaching what Anthroposophical Science has to say about the life-body. There is, however, a very important difference. From the facts of sense-perception, modern science arrives, through intellectual considerations or reflections, at the assumption of a kind of vital force. This is not the method of genuine spiritual investigation which Anthroposophy adopts and from the results of which it makes its statements. It cannot often enough be emphasized how great is the difference, in this respect, between Anthroposophy and the current science of to-day. For the latter regards the experiences of the senses as the foundation for all knowledge. Anything that cannot be built up on this foundation, it takes to be unknowable. From the impressions of the senses it draws deductions and conclusions. What goes on beyond them it rejects, as lying ‘beyond the frontiers of human knowledge.’

From the standpoint of Anthroposophical Science, such a view is like that of a blind man, who only admits as valid things that can be touched and conclusions that result by deduction from the world of touch — a blind man who rejects the statements of seeing people as lying outside the possibility of human knowledge. Anthroposophy shows man to be capable of evolution, capable of bringing new worlds within his sphere by the development of new organs of perception. GA291/English/RSPC1935 and light are all around the blind man. If he cannot see them, it is only because he lacks the organs of perception. In like manner Anthroposophy asserts: there are many worlds around man, and man can perceive them if only he develops the necessary organs. As the blind man who has undergone a successful operation looks out upon a new world, so by the development of higher organs man can come to know new worlds — worlds altogether different from those which his ordinary senses allow him to perceive.

Now whether one who is blind in body can be operated on or not, depends on the constitution of his organs. But the higher organs whereby man can penetrate into the higher worlds, are present in embryo in every human being. Everyone can develop them who has the patience, endurance, and energy to apply in his own case the methods described in the volume, ‘Knowledge of Higher Worlds and its Attainment.’

Anthroposophical Science, then, would never say that there are definite frontiers to human knowledge. What it would rather say is that for man those worlds exist, for which he has the organs of perception. Thus Anthroposophy speaks only of the methods whereby existing frontiers may be extended; and this is its position with regard to the investigation of the life-body or etheric body, and of all that is specified in the following pages as the yet higher members of man's nature. Anthroposophy admits that the physical body alone is accessible to investigation through the bodily senses, and that — from the point of view of this kind of investigation — it will at most be possible by intellectual deductions to surmise the existence of a higher body. At the same time, it tells how it is possible to open up a world wherein these higher members of man's nature emerge for the observer, as the colour and the light of things emerge after operation in the case of a man born blind. For those who have developed the higher organs of perception, the etheric or life-body is an object of perception and not merely of intellectual deduction.

Man has this etheric or life-body in common with the plants and animals. The life-body works in a formative way upon the substances and forces of the physical body, thus bringing about the phenomena of growth, reproduction, and inner movement of the saps and fluids. It is therefore the builder and moulder of the physical body, its inhabitant and architect. The physical body may even be spoken of as an image or expression of the life-body. In man the two are nearly, though by no means wholly, equal as to form and size. In the animals, however, and still more so in the plants, the etheric body is very different, both in form and in extension, from the physical.

The third member of the human body is what is called the Sentient or Astral Body. It is the vehicle of pain and pleasure, of impulse, craving, passion, and the like — all of which are absent in a creature consisting only of physical and etheric bodies. These things may all be included in the term: sentient feeling or sensation. The plant has no sensation. If in our time some learned men, seeing that plants will respond by movement or in some other way to external stimulus, conclude that plants have a certain power of sensation, they only show their ignorance of what sensation is. The point is not whether the creature responds to an external stimulus, but whether the stimulus is reflected in an inner process — as pain or pleasure, impulse, desire, or the like. Unless we held fast to this criterion, we should be justified in saying that blue litmus-paper has a sensation of certain substances, because it turns red by contact with them. (See Footnote 2)

Man has therefore a sentient body in common with the animal kingdom only, and this sentient body is the vehicle of sensation or of sentient life.

We must not fall into the error of certain theosophical circles, and imagine the etheric and sentient bodies as consisting simply of finer substances than are present in the physical body. For that would be a materialistic conception of these higher members of man's nature. The etheric body is a force-form; it consists of active forces, and not of matter. The astral or sentient body is a figure of inwardly moving, coloured, luminous pictures. The astral body deviates, both in shape and size, from the physical body. In man it presents an elongated ovoid form, within which the physical and etheric bodies are embedded. It projects beyond them — a vivid, luminous figure — on every side. (See Footnote 3)

Now man possesses a fourth member of his being; and this fourth member he shares with no other earthly creature. It is the vehicle of the human ‘ I ,’ of the human Ego. The little word ‘ I ’ — as used, for example, in the English language — is a name essentially different from all other names. To anyone who ponders rightly on the nature of this name, there is opened up at once a way of approach to a perception of man's real nature. All other names can be applied, by all men equally, to the thing they designate. Everyone can call a table ‘table,’ and everyone can call a chair ‘chair’; but it is not so with the name ‘ I .’ No one can use this name to designate another. Each human being can only call himself ‘ I ’; the name ‘ I ’ can never reach my ear as a designation of myself. In designating himself as ‘ I ,’ man has to name himself within himself. A being who can say ‘ I ’ to himself is a world in himself. Those religions which are founded on spiritual knowledge have always had a feeling for this truth. Hence they have said: With the ‘ I ,’ the ‘God’ — who in the lower creatures reveals himself only from without, in the phenomena of the surrounding world — begins to speak from within. The vehicle of this faculty of saying ‘ I ,’ of the Ego-faculty, is the ‘Body of the Ego,’ the fourth member of the human being. (See Footnote 4)

This ‘Body of the Ego’ is the vehicle of the higher soul of man. Through it man is the crown of all earthly creation. Now in the human being of the present day the Ego is by no means simple in character. We may recognize its nature if we compare human beings at different stages of development. Look at the uneducated savage beside the average European, or again, compare the latter with a lofty idealist. Each one of them has the faculty of saying ‘ I ’ to himself; the ‘Body of the Ego’ is present in them all. But the uneducated savage, with his Ego, follows his passions, impulses, and cravings almost like an animal. The more highly developed man says to himself, ‘Such and such impulses and desires you may follow,’ while others again he holds in check or suppresses altogether. The idealist has developed new impulses and new desires in addition to those originally present. All this has taken place through the Ego working upon the other members of the human being. Indeed, it is this which constitutes the special task of the Ego. Working outward from itself, it has to ennoble and purify the other members of man's nature.

In the human being who has reached beyond the condition in which the external world first placed him, the lower members have become changed to a greater or lesser degree under the influence of the ‘Ego.’ When man is only beginning to rise above the animal, when his ‘Ego’ is only just kindled, he is still like an animal so far as the lower members of his being are concerned. His etheric or life-body is simply the vehicle of the formative forces of life, the forces of growth and reproduction. His sentient body gives expression to those impulses, desires, and passions only, which are stimulated by external nature. As man works his way up from this stage of development, through successive lives or incarnations, to an ever higher evolution, his ‘Ego’ works upon the other members and transforms them. In this way his sentient body becomes the vehicle of purified sensations of pleasure and pain, refined wishes and desires. And the etheric or life-body also becomes transformed. It becomes the vehicle of the man's habits, of his more permanent bent or tendency in life, of his temperament and of his memory. A man whose Ego has not yet worked upon his life-body, has no memory of the experiences he goes through in life. He just lives out what Nature has implanted in him.

This is what the growth and development of civilization means for man. It is a continual working of his Ego upon the lower members of his nature. The work penetrates right down into the physical body. Under the influence of the Ego, the whole appearance and physiognomy, the gestures and movements of the physical body, are altered. It is possible, moreover, to distinguish the way in which the different means of culture or civilization work upon the several members of man's nature. The ordinary factors of civilization work upon the sentient body and imbue it with pleasures and pains, with impulses and cravings, of a different kind from what it had originally. Again, when the human being is absorbed in the contemplation of a great work of art, his etheric body is being influenced. Through the work of art he divines something higher and more noble than is offered by the ordinary environment of his senses, and in this process he is forming and transforming his life-body. Religion is a powerful means for the purification and ennobling of the etheric body. It is here that the religious impulses have their mighty purpose in the evolution of mankind.

What we call ‘conscience’ is nothing else than the outcome of the work of the Ego on the life-body through incarnation after incarnation. When man begins to perceive that he ought not to do this or that, and when this perception makes so strong an impression on him that the impression passes on into his etheric body, ‘conscience’ arises.

Now this work of the Ego upon the lower members may either be something that is proper to a whole race of men; or else it may be entirely individual, an achievement of the individual Ego working on itself alone. In the former case, the whole human race collaborates, as it were, in the transformation of the human being. The latter kind of transformation depends on the activity of the individual Ego alone and of itself. The Ego may become so strong as to transform, by its very own power and strength, the sentient body. What the Ego then makes of the Sentient or Astral Body is called ‘Spirit-Self’ (or by an Eastern expression, ‘Manas’). This transformation is wrought mainly through a process of learning, through an enriching of one's inner life with higher ideas and perceptions.

Now the Ego can rise to a still higher task, and it is one that belongs quite essentially to its nature. This happens when not only is the astral body enriched, but the etheric or life-body transformed. A man learns many things in the course of his life; and if from some point he looks back on his past life, he may say to himself: ‘I have learned much.’ But in a far less degree will he be able to speak of a transformation in his temperament or character during life, or of an improvement or deterioration in his memory. Learning concerns the astral body, whereas the latter kinds of transformation concern the etheric or life-body. Hence it is by no means an unhappy image if we compare the change in the astral body during life with the course of the minute hand of a clock, and the transformation of the life-body with the course of the hour hand.

When man enters on a higher training — or, as it is called, occult training — it is above all important for him to undertake, out of the very own power of his Ego, this latter transformation. Individually and with full consciousness, he has to work out the transformation of his habits and his temperament, his character, his memory ... In so far as he thus works into his life-body, he transforms it into what is called in anthroposophical terminology, ‘Life-Spirit’ (or, as the Eastern expression has it, ‘Budhi’).

At a still higher stage man comes to acquire forces whereby he is able to work upon his physical body and transform it (transforming, for example, the circulation of the blood, the pulse). As much of the physical body as is thus transformed is ‘Spirit-Man’ (or, in the Eastern term, ‘Atma’).

Now as a member of the whole human species or of some section of it — for example, of a nation, tribe, or family — man also achieves certain transformations of the lower parts of his nature. In Anthroposophical Science the results of this latter kind of transformation are known by the following names. The astral or sentient body, transformed through the Ego, is called the Sentient Soul; the transformed etheric body is called the Intellectual Soul; and the transformed physical body the Spiritual Soul. We must not imagine the transformations of these three members taking place one after another in time. From the moment when the Ego lights up, all three bodies are undergoing transformation simultaneously. Indeed, the work of the Ego does not become clearly perceptible to man until a part of the Spiritual Soul has already been formed and developed.

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