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The Group Souls of Animals, Plants and Minerals

by Rudolf Steiner
A lecture given at Frankfurt/Main, February 2, 1908

Translated by V.E. Watkin 

We have repeatedly to emphasize that knowledge of the spirit must become a living knowledge — by which we mean that a man should not simply come to know various things through spiritual science, but learn to think, feel, perceive, differently about everything around him. This begins when, in the right way, a man takes into him theosophical impulses. He must learn to feel with, and live with, every being. This, certainly, must apply most of all to his fellowmen, but we learn to have sympathy with other men when we can feel for the rest of the world. A man gradually gets to know the whole surrounding world; gradually he learns that everywhere around him there are spiritual beings, that all the time he is actually walking through them. He realizes this through his feeling, his perception. He learns to recognize what surrounds us in the three kingdoms of nature, learns about the beings in the mineral, plant, and animal kingdoms. Then as he goes about in meadows and woods, through the ploughed fields and open country, he experiences it all in a different way from the man who knows nothing of what spiritual science can tell.

Looking at the other beings it might at first be thought that those of the animal kingdom had no soul such as man possesses. It is true that the human ego, the human soul, is different from that of the animal. The human soul lives on the physical plane. When we study the animal as such, each single animal has a physical body, an etheric body, and an astral body. Besides these members, each man when awake has an ego within him. The animal does not have its ego on the physical plane; for that, indeed, we must look deeper, into the so-called astral world. As here on the physical plane the population consists of human beings, we find the astral plane to be populated by the egos of the animals. And just as down here a man meets other men, the seer on the astral plane meets the egos of the animals — as separate personalities. We may picture it in this way. Imagine a man's ten fingers thrust through a screen and in movement. We see the moving fingers but not the man, for he is hidden by the screen. We cannot imagine that the fingers have come through the screen and move about on their own. We have to assume the intervention of some kind of being. So it is with the animals in the physical world. All animals of the same formation share a Group soul, a Group ego. Here on the physical plane we see the animals moving around, and each has a physical body, an etheric body and an astral body. What physically we see, lions for example, are the outwardly projected organs of the lion ego living in the astral world. The lion ego, the Group ego of all physical lions, is just as much a separate entity as is the human being when on earth. Each group of animals has an ego on the astral plane; on that plane is found the lion ego, the tiger ego, the ego of the vultures, and so on. The single animals here on the physical plane are like the fingers thrust through a screen. When we watch the single animals many of them appear extraordinarily clever, but they are directed from the astral plane where the animal group egos are to be found. The astral plane is populated by beings who are far cleverer than man; these animal egos are very wise beings. Look at the birds in flight, how they sweep over the different regions, and how well-ordered they are; how in autumn they go off, in their flocks, to some warmer climate, coming back again with the Spring. When we see the wisdom in this ordering, it prompts us to ask: Who is in command behind the screen? The answer is the group egos. If we watch a beaver building, we see there is more wisdom in what it builds than in the greatest engineering feat. And the intelligence shown in the way the bees work has also been the object of study. For instance, when given sugar in place of honey it is seen that, as they cannot take up sugar, they fetch other bees and fly off to the nearest water. Each bee brings a drop of water to dissolve the sugar, thus transforming it into a kind of syrup which is then carried into the hive. And behind this work is the spirit of the beehive. The single bees all belong to one personality, in the way that our limbs belong to us — only the bees are more spread out than our more closely connected, more compact limbs. We are walking about all the time through beings we do not see, through the animal egos invisible to our physical eyes.

Just as this describes what we begin to feel with regard to these unsuspected beings, so it is where the souls of the plants are concerned. The plant egos dwell in a higher world than the animal egos. The separate group egos of the plants live on what we call the devachanic plane. We can even state the place where they actually are — in the very centre of the earth, whereas the animal group souls circle round the earth like trade winds. All these plant egos at the centre point of the earth are mutually interpenetrating beings, for in the spiritual world a law of penetrability prevails and all beings pass through one another. We see the animal group souls moving over the earth like trade winds, and how in their wisdom they carry out what appears to be done by the animals. Studying the plant we see that its head — the root — is directed towards the center of the earth where its group ego is to be found. The earth itself is the outward expression of soul and spirit beings. From the spiritual point of view the plants seem like the nails of our fingers. The plants belong to the earth, and when we look at them singly we do not see a complete entity, for the single plant is just one among the whole number of beings constituting a group ego. In this way we can enter into what the plants themselves feel. The part of the plant that springs up out of the earth, what from within the earth strives up to the surface, is of a different nature from what is growing under the earth. There is a difference between the cutting off of blossoms, stalk, leaves, and the tearing up of a root. The former gives the plant soul a feeling of well-being, of pleasure, just as it gives pleasure to a cow, for example, when the calf sucks milk from her udder. There is actual similarity between the milk of animals, and that part of a plant which pushes its way out of the earth. When in late summer we go through fields where corn is being cut, where the blade is passing through the corn stems, then the whole fields breathe out a feeling of bliss. It is an intensely significant moment when we not only watch the reaping with our physical eyes, but perceive the feeling of contentment sweeping over the earth as the corn falls to the ground. But when the roots of the plants are pulled up, then that is painful for the plant souls. In the higher worlds the same laws do not hold good which are valid in the physical world. When we rise to the spiritual worlds our conceptions become different; even here on the physical plane there is sometimes opposition between the principle of beauty and that of pain or pleasure. It is possible that, impelled by a feeling for beauty, someone might pull out their white hairs, that indeed would be painful. And it is like that in the case of the plants. When the roots are pulled up this may make for neatness — yet the plants suffer.

Even stone is without life only on the physical plane. All minerals have their group egos in the higher worlds, on the higher devachanic plane, and these, too, feel pain and pleasure. Only spiritual science can teach us about these matters; speculation is of no avail. Looking at a quarry, and watching the splitting off of each block of stone, one might imagine this to cause pain for the stone ego. But it is not so. With the actual splitting of stone, there gushes out in all directions a feeling of pleasure. Out of the quarry from which the blocks are being cut there streams deep satisfaction on every side. And if we put salt into a glass of water so that it dissolves, then, too, a feeling of pleasure flows through the water. We see this pleasure stream through the water if, with eyes of the spirit, we watch the salt dissolve; but when the salt is becoming crystallized again the pleasure turns to pain. And it would be painful for the stone ego were we able to remold the severed blocks into their original bed.

These mysteries have always been made known to the people by the seers, out of the secret writings of their ancient religious records; but people have lost the capacity for understanding them. Let us think ourselves back into long past ages of our earth evolution. We see rocky masses of mountains, heaped up in layers of clay, basalt, and so on; and as we go further and further back we find everything on earth becoming softer. At length we come to a time when the earth was just one mass of fiery warmth, when iron, all metals, all minerals in fact, were merged in the spiritual. At that time man also was a spiritual being; if he was to go on evolving to his present form, these soft masses had to solidify. Thus the mountain ranges came into being, the minerals detached themselves from the soft substance, and the earth became the fit dwelling place for human beings as they are today. The mighty heaps of lifeless rock crystallized out of the fire-streaming earth, just as dissolved salt turns again into crystals. It has all been one great process of transformation, the passing over of the fluid condition into solidified masses. That did not happen without suffering. The densification of our earthly globe has been closely bound up with pain for the soul of the rock.

In the future the earth will become spiritualized again. It will be entirely broken down into fragments — as radium can already show us today. A process of dissolution will arise for the earth, a spiritualizing process, a becoming divine — in effect, the assuming of a childlike state. Let us hear what the Apostle Paul has to say: how the whole earth and all beings groan in pain for the “glorious liberty of the children of God.” In Romans VIII, verse 19, we read “For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God”; and in verse 22, “For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now.”

In those words we are given a picture of what happens on earth, when the soul of the rock suffers pain until the coming of the state of “Children of God.” — It is enough to sadden one when those who should instruct others concerning the ancient religious documents just allow their fancy to run away with them, because they won't take the trouble to penetrate to the real meaning of what has thus been handed down. This unwillingness to get to the heart of the ancient teachings is considered by the leaders of mankind to be an absolute violation of duty. Paul, the Apostle, recognized what such processes on earth signify. In this later period of ours, spiritual science is destined to lead men into the depths of these old records. It is indeed sad when those whose very calling should entail the upholding of them, make no effort to study, and have no will to understand, their meaning. Present-day arrogance, summed up in the words: “We have made such wonderful progress” — this must all go. How many people there are who believe that our forebears knew nothing! And there are those who expound the epistles of Paul, and all religious documents, quite arbitrarily, with a feeling of pride that they know more than their forefathers. But how then are we to take the words: “the whole creation groaneth in pain waiting for the manifestation of the sons of God”? And what effect does it have upon us when we know how the soul of the stone suffers while awaiting that manifestation? — People of materialistic mind think that, there outside, they walk only through air, wind, mist, through oxygen and nitrogen. But those who have spiritual knowledge realize, everywhere, that they are breathing spiritual beings in and out — merging with them.

Thus we have seen how the egos of the animals encircle the earth like the trade winds; how the plant egos have their common dwelling place in the center of the earth; and how the earth — being in itself alive, with a soul capable of feeling — is affected by the uprooting of the plants. Everything outside is ensouled and filled through and through with life. — In the same way as the physical body is produced out of physical substances and forces, do our spiritual members come forth out of the great whole. From that we begin to perceive our self as a small world resting in the great world; and this arouses in us a sense of being blessed. It is only when we learn to feel with the minerals, plants, and animals, that we can also experience this feeling of being at rest within the whole vast universe.

And so we see how spiritual science leads us into the spiritual foundations of existence. It is something which transforms our feeling and our will for life, so that, as men, we become different. Anthroposophical conceptions are seeds, impulses of will on the road to true experience.

Answers to Questions after the Lecture

The Death of Animals

An animal's death is quite different from that of a man. In the case of man death has to do with the bringing down of his individual ego on to the physical plane and the identification of it with his physical body. A man speaks of his physical body as “I” — feels himself to be “I”. When at death he loses his physical body it is a perceptible process, and he feels he is losing something of value. For those accustomed to look upon the physical body as valueless, the loss is less severe.

The single animal has no such sense of “I am”. That is experienced by the group soul. The more a being is individualized, and the deeper its descent on the physical plane, the more difficult its regeneration becomes. The group soul feels the death of an animal as we should the loss of a finger — as something to be compensated for or replaced.

After long periods the animals on earth change. Species evolve. Darwinism has elaborated this hypothetically, but the following is really the case. When an animal species changes there is also a change of group soul; and when the species becomes extinct this, for the group soul, is similar to death. For example, the seer today can discern a kind of death rattle in the group soul of the ibex. But the group soul evolves and becomes, on the extinction of one animal species, the group soul of another — which is like a rebirth.

The Significance of Killing Animals

The higher evolution of the earth consists in killing ceasing altogether. Therefore the ideal from the standpoint of spiritual science is to refrain from killing.

The Effect of Transplanting a Yew Tree

It means terrible pain for the tree when it is uprooted. It is not possible, however, in the course of world evolution, entirely to eliminate pain. All higher beings are born in pain, without which there could often be no evolution. The spiritual leaders of mankind have allowed this suffering so as to enable men to arrive at their present state.

Thanks to the Rudolf Steiner Archive, where many more lectures and writings by Rudolf Steiner are available.