What is the Human Being?

Image of a human head sillouete made of green leaves with some brown and yellow leaves falling off

by Judith von Halle

Excerpt from her her book Dementia - Anthroposophical Perspectives*

Knowledge about the human being, his true inner and outer nature, can be acquired if one begins to consider him – which is, after all, his own being – with the methods of anthroposophical spiritual science. Practicing anthroposophical spiritual science is possible for everyone. No special qualifications are needed. By being human one is qualified. For it is not at all the task of anthroposophical spiritual science to investigate the spirit, but by means of the spirit to investigate the world and humanity. The fact that this spirit is available to the human being means that we are – without any kind of specialized training – very well equipped for anthroposophical investigative work, provided that we are really willing to do so.

Surely we can advance to higher knowledge with anthroposophical spiritual science, as is the case with every scientific activity. But anthroposophical spiritual science can be practiced by everyone, because it embraces every imaginable field in which one can be interested, and it always begins with what everyone – also those not scientifically trained – can do: observe. The precise observation of all the phenomena and events without hasty judgment about what is being observed is the prerequisite for all serious scientific work.

Everyone can practice observing the surrounding objects and events, starting by observing the small, most familiar things, from the processes of growth and decay in a flower to phenomena to which one has not yet been confronted, such as the progression of illness in a dementia patient. Both, the apparently longtime familiar as well as what has never been seen before, demand close attention from us, for when we quietly observe a long familiar process without the usual hasty evaluation or judgment, we will discover much that we were previously unaware of; it will be like a completely unknown phenomenon.

By means of such exact observing, when we try to curb all the hasty (clever) knowing about what is being observed, suddenly connections will be evident which make clear to us that all observed objects and events are subject to constant change, whether slow or rapid, which, although invisible, does exist and must be permeated with processes and forces. Gradually we come to the certainty that alongside our familiar visible, earthly world another, invisible spiritual world must exist from which these actions and forces emanate – as for example the stimulus which lets the plant grow and decay; or that invisible but undeniably existent and intense feeling of love, or also of loathing.

Only by carrying out such simple but earnest observation exercises will we recognize this spiritual world as omnipresent, for it is what permeates our material, visible outer world. And we will recognize that everything we perceive of the external world with our sensory organs is vivified by it.

Therefore, anthroposophical spiritual science takes on the task of first observing the essence of the world and of the human being, just as they are, namely in their outer nature and their inner spiritual relationships, and then to fathom them. Anthroposophical spiritual science investigates the same things as do natural science, only not in a “test tube”, but by means of refined spiritual perception.

For an in-depth investigation of the relationships between the outer world and the spiritual world, however, other organs of perception than the sensory ones are needed. Simple exercises, such as the already mentioned observation exercise, lead to the gradual training of such supersensible organs through what takes place in the soul by means of pure observation.1 It is worth mentioning that the development of supersensible organs, according to equally clear rules, occurs as does the development of sensory organs. The disclosures resulting from the use of supersensible organs are also to be compared with each other as are the results and disclosures which we make through the use of our sensory organs. Just as two rational persons would not argue as to whether the sky as a rule is blue and not green, so would two persons with supersensible organs not argue about whether there are body-free, living beings in the supersensible world, to which human beings also belong when they are body-free in the time between death and a new birth and are living in the spiritual world.

When we consider the human being from the anthroposophical point of view, a certain discrepancy arises with the approach of many natural scientists; for anthroposophical spiritual science contemplates the human being as a spiritual being. This spiritual being has its home in the spiritual world and unites itself, through incarnation, with the physical body, which serves as an instrument to live in the physical material world and to work in it, beginning in the womb after conception. Therefore the human being is a part of this spiritual world and remains one after he is born. We can say that the earthly human being is at least as much a spiritual being as a physical one; in reality the ratio is three to one. For whoever investigates and describes the human being in a spiritual-scientific way will come to the conclusion that he consists of four different components of being, only one of which is the physical-material body that we see in the mirror.

At first we have the familiar material, physical body that we can feel and touch. It contains our organs, which can degenerate when affected by an illness and may be treated by means of surgery. Only this material body has taken on the same characteristics as the mineral kingdom. It is matter which – had it not been permeated with something completely different – would be as rigid and lifeless as a stone. But the human being possesses, besides this physical body, one which in anthroposophical spiritual science is called the “life-body” or “etheric-body”. This body, invisible to the sensory organs, works as a spiritual, vivifying force into the organs of the physical body and makes them functional. We possess this life-body, or etheric-body, in common with the vegetable kingdom. Plants also have a material body which we can touch as we do a stone, but they grow and bloom and then wither. A force of an “etheric” nature acts in them, which vivifies the dead material. But the human being has, in addition to the physical and etheric bodies, another component of his being, namely what we usually call the “soul”. This component, which in anthroposophical terminology is called the “astral-body”, basically works in the nervous system, bringing forth the feelings which we sense within us and which we all too often allow to lead us. With this component we stand at the stage of the animal kingdom. Animals, in contrast to plants, have the astral-body as their highest component. They have feelings which they can express. But finally the human being possesses still a fourth element, which raises him above the animal kingdom: it is the “I”.2 Through the I, the human being has a clear consciousness of Self; he is able to apprehend himself and the world in thought. One can also call this I the “spirit”. We are concerned with this spirit when we grapple with dementia, because the word dementia includes the word spirit (“mens”).

Physical body:            Visible component

Etheric body:               Invisible spiritual component

Astral body                  Invisible spiritual component

The I                            Invisible spiritual component

Medical science today is feverishly occupied with seeking a treatment for dementia and also for its causes. Admittedly some small successes have been achieved with the discovery of means which delay the degenerative process of dementia, but in fact, with the help of conventional medicinal and natural scientific procedures, we have neither discovered exactly what triggers this illness nor how it can be treated. The degenerative processes are studied, but even when the material processes can be exactly described, the question of “why” remains. Incidentally, this also applies to most illnesses, above all the incurable ones. Why does a cell degenerate and cancer develop? Of course there are risk factors, but people die of cancer although none of the risk factors apply to them. Why does one person catch influenza when another, who had the same close contacts, does not? Why does it break out in one person on a certain day and in another not? The “hardline” natural scientists would answer that this depends upon certain material preconditions. But then we could again ask: Why do such preconditions apply on that particular day?

In respect to such questions about the “why”, we might remember a typical scene in physics class during our school days when the revolutions of the planets around the sun were explained using objects swimming in water that are put in motion using a stick or a spoon. That depiction of centrifugal force can appear to be very illuminating, but who, some naïve (in the best sense) pupils might be inclined to ask, is responsible for the impulse in planetary space? Who holds the stick or the spoon? Many teachers point to the so-called “big bang”, and pupils may prefer to be silent when the question arises in them again: Who is responsible for the big bang? Therefore it isn’t strange that the greatest natural scientists, above all physicists, finally reach for the concept of God. This concept of God is only revealed when one recognizes the invisible spirit as the cause of material phenomena.

Whoever arrives at an enhanced and therewith accurate envisioning of the human being such as spiritual science makes possible, will quickly see the plausibility of also keeping the spiritual relationships in mind when evaluating physical phenomena. It has been shown that the scientists who understand the human being as the product of a “randomly determined gene-lottery”3 and instead of the psycho-spiritual nature of humanity define material degeneration as caused by randomness, can hardly arrive at the causes of illnesses such as dementia. If the spiritual components of the person are not taken into consideration, finding the causes of illness is hardly imaginable; one can only treat the symptoms, which does not lead to a cure. Many orthodox methods, based on a distorted image of man, only achieve a suppression of the symptoms. This word is appropriate for the process that takes place in the patient when he is treated with such means. For in fact what the illness wants to express is suppressed, pressed downward. The essence of the illness, its cause, also its spiritual reason and purpose, instead of being treated is suppressed into the deeper layers of the human being, and the destiny or karma which should have been fulfilled by this illness is pushed forward to a later point in time, perhaps even to a future incarnation. Naturally such a suppressed illness will find expression at the next opportunity in a much more sever way.

Recognition of the spirit in the human being and the universe is, however, quite difficult for our contemporary culture. Whoever speaks of such things will often only be laughed at by the wise men of science. In this respect there is a simple, everyday observable example to show how the spirit vivifies matter and that matter could never exist without the spirit: it is death. With nothing else can the real impulse of the spirit be so graphically illustrated. Every day someone in our direct proximity abandons his or her physical body. Whoever has stood at a deathbed will have witnessed this great moment: The human being whom we knew abandons his bodily dwelling. Here it becomes very clear to us that we had not loved the physical person, but that the physical body of this person was really only the earthly appearance that the real person had assumed; and now the mere physical component lies in the deathbed, but it is no longer the true human being. The true human being, namely the spiritual one, has gone to another place, to another world in which he needs no physical body. Basically, everyone should be able to understand this: when the person’s spirit is present in the physical body it permeates it, works in it so that the physical body can walk around. If the spirit is removed from the physical instrument, it lies unmoving and rigid.

We can make a similar observation with a sleeping person. When asleep the spirit and the soul, that is, the I and the astral-body, leave the physical body and move to the spiritual world. The life-body, however, remains united with the physical component, for the organic functions remain unaffected during sleep. Nevertheless, when the person’s spirit is in the spiritual world while sleeping, he cannot move around, he only lies in bed. As soon as the spirit is brought back again into the physical component, he can again rise and guide his limbs around the room. When the human being passes through the gates of death, his spirit does not return to the bodily component. But he does not disappear. He lives in his true spiritual home, until one day he returns in a new incarnation and acquires a new physical body. This thought explains the secret of the Christ-impulse. “I am the resurrection and the life,” Christ tells Martha.4 Christ is the “I AM”, which is given to each of us. This I, the fourth component of being, is the spiritual in man; it is our actual individuality, and this actual individuality is not decomposable, it is immortal. Consequently the I is the “resurrection”, for it overcomes death in that it rises out of the decomposing material body and enters its spiritual home undamaged, and that is “the life”.

Therefore the human being is a spiritual being who during his earthly sojourn resides in a material body, which has been built by higher spiritual beings." When one regards man as the being which he really is, namely consisting of four different components, it is then possible to speak anthropologically about this being, even if one has completed no medical studies. By means of anthroposophical spiritual science, for example, knowledge of the physical nature of the human being can be acquired without dissecting his body.

By means of the example of the sleeping state, we can observe that man’s components of being can pass through various stages so that the whole person is “mobile”. Also in the case of an illness the various human components are in movement; something exceptional is happening to him. If we recognize that the human being is permeated and thereby strengthened with spiritual impulses, then we have achieved a real scientific contribution to the knowledge of man. On the other hand, we can understand why orthodox medicine, despite all its achievements contributing to human wellbeing, does not advance in many aspects and is unable to answer many questions about the causes of illnesses. But if we approach the true causes of illnesses, in many cases treatment would not have to remain at the stage of treating symptoms.

Given that man is a spiritual being with a physical body, it is obvious that the causes of an illness are not to be found in the physical context, but rather the physical breakdown is recognized as the impulse of spiritual causes and these causes are to be sought within the spiritual components of the human being.