The Nature of Archangels
In many lectures, Rudolf
Steiner spoke about the existence and activity of the great archangels.
He also mentions lesser archangels, though he says little about their nature
or activities. To understand their nature we need to consider how our states
of consciousness are influenced by our participation in communities of like-minded
individuals, and how both of these factors can influence our perception
of what is real. Once we understand these relationships we
can come closer to an understanding of the nature of the archangels. This
understanding can help form the basis for non-sensory experience of these
From a non-systems point of view an organic being
is composed of various parts that function harmoniously together to make
the organism. This point of view sees the organism as extrinsically membered
into a number of parts that compose the organism. I say extrinsically membered
because the parts do not have a inherent (intrinsic) connection with each
other. The parts are externally connected through the fact that they happen
to belong to an organism.
From a systems viewpoint an organism is a whole
that is intrinsically membered into parts. The parts do not happen to belong
to the organism. Rather they are parts because they belong to the organism.
When we take this holistic view we see the parts as intrinsically connected
to the organism as a whole. Part and whole have a different, and more intimate,
relationship than we are normally accustomed to. From a systems viewpoint
it would be more correct to speak of the part/whole than of the part and
whole. The relationship is one where the part and the whole are so intimately
connected that they take their meanings from each other. There
is no whole without the parts that comprise it, but the parts are only parts
because they are "of the whole." Abstract definitions of "part" and "whole"
miss this relationship.
The archangels that I am describing have this part/whole character.
The parts of which they are composed do not happen to belong together. They
are not extrinsic parts. The parts are intrinsic participants in the part/whole
that is the archangel. They are parts because they belong to the archangel.
If, in this article, I seem to emphasize the parts it is because I am writing
from the standpoint of normal daytime consciousness. If, like Steiner,
I were to write from the standpoint of angelic consciousness, I would have
to speak of the archangels as wholes and write about their individual actions
From the standpoint of our normal daytime consciousness
there are three components of the body of an archangel. Only one of these
is sense perceptible. The others might be called "spiritual states." Understanding
these states will occupy most of this article. The first sense-perceptable
component is a group of human beings, a community. The second
is the state of consciousness possessed by a member of the community, and
the third encompasses everything that that the community members consider
real. These three elements, community, consciousness, realty, exist in a
self-supporting interactive system (Fig. 1). In anthroposophy we know this
system as an archangel.
Consciousness and Reality
To understand what it is to be an archangel we must
take both our states of consciousness, and the content of these states,
seriously. When, in our waking state of consciousness we turn our attention
inward we become aware not just of our individuality, but also of what we
call the external world as that world is reflected in our consciousness. When
we look into our self, we become aware of a specific content, which at that
moment of introspection constitutes a large part of our experience of this
self. Our direct experience of our self is always of a self that is filled
with some content. This content may be a thought, feeling,
a mental picture, or even, in higher states of awareness, of a purely spiritual
nature. For instance, when I close my eyes and turn my attention inward,
I may be aware of pressure from the chair on which I sit, of a patterned darkness
that I have learned to associate with having my eyes closed, of the tension
of my muscles and a dull discomfort in my back or stomach, of images of people
and objects that flit through my consciousness, of myriad remembered sensations,
feelings, and experiences that form the content of my momentary consciousness,
and that are unified through my memory and sense of self. I do not experience
my self as an isolated monad. I experience my self as a being whose consciousness
is continually filled with the content of the world I inhabit.
The normal materialistic explanation of this phenomenon
is that this content is a reflection of a preexisting physical world. According
to this assumption, the world exists outside of us, and is presented to
our senses in a form that is essentially complete. Our task as conscious
beings is merely to receive and mirror this preexisting world. Although Rudolf
Steiner effectively demonstrated that this assumption is unwarranted, to
most people it still seems perfectly reasonable. This is likely due to the
fact that, as long as we speak and act as if our experience of the world
takes place in only one state of consciousness, the content of our consciousness
does appear to originate outside of our self in an independent and objective
external world. If we lived our whole lives in a single, waking state of
consciousness we would always encounter the same type of content when we
turned out attention inward. We would always encounter a content that has
the same form as the sense world. Under these conditions, the content of
our introspection would be linked to the content presented to our senses.
The assumption that there is a preexisting world that provides this content
arises when we give undue weight to the concept that there is a single,
waking state of consciousness. The belief in an external world comes from
treating this waking state as unitary, as if there were only one state of
consciousness that never varied. However, neither is our waking state of consciousness
unitary, nor is it the only state of consciousness that we possess. Our states
of consciousness are not unitary, they are legion. As we become aware of
this fact, what we know of as the external world begins to appear less like
a preexisting given, and more like a multiplicity of potentialities that
are translated into perceptions through our activity in various states of
consciousness. I elaborate on these ideas, below.
States of Consciousness
During the span of 24 hours we are subject
to a great range of conscious states. Steiner frequently spoke of three
of these states: waking, dreaming and dreamless sleep. However, we experience
many more than these three states. As we drift off to sleep or wake in the
morning we pass though or even linger in states of consciousness between
sleeping and waking. During these states we are aware of some,
but not all, of the perceptions that we have when fully awake. In these states
we may have dream-like sensations in which environmental stimuli are incorporated
into our half-dream, half-waking consciousness. Once awake, we experience
not one, but many different states of consciousness. Our awareness of ourselves
is different while we are writing, speaking, eating, or meditating. It also
differs as we turn our attention to different stimuli. Immersing oneself
is a Bach fugue induces a very different state of consciousness from listing
to techno or rap music. In all of these examples we retain a core sense
of our self, but we come into relationship with this core in very different
Social Influences on Consciousness
Western culture has developed to the point where our daytime
consciousness is the state out of which we interact with the external, physical
world. However, given the above we are forced to ask "Which state of daytime
consciousness are we referring to?" Up to now I have spoken of a "normal"
daytime consciousness as if we knew what that was. The truth is that we
have no objective way of defining which of our many states of consciousness
is normal. All we can do is accept as normal that state which is tacitly
accepted as normal by most of the people who we meet and interact with in
our daily lives. In western culture this is the state of consciousness through
which we create, accept, and interact with the physical world. To say that
our daytime consciousness is our normal state is just another way of saying
that most of the people in our culture accept this state as normal. It
does not mean that the World is, in its essence, the way
we take it to be in this state of consciousness. Our state of consciousness
and our perception of reality as having certain properties exist in a mutually
supportive relationship. They are two parts of the threefold system we are
considering here. Reality is the way we take it to be because we invest
it with qualities by crediting a specific state of consciousness, which
has that reality as its content. The physical world is the content of our
normal waking state of consciousness.
From these considerations we see that the process
of selecting one of our multiple states of consciousness as the one out
of which we interact with reality is inherently social. It involves the
formation of, and communication among, a group of people who cooperate in
selecting and defining a mode of consciousness. This community then uses
this state of consciousness to define what realty is like.
To help understand how this occurs, it is instructive
to turn our attention to non-western cultures. In some non-western cultures
individuals experience reality very differently than we do in the west.
For instance, the Aranda people of Australia use the term altjiranga mitjina
to refer to the time-outside-time that exists in dreams and which, to the
Aranda, is also the time in which their ancestors live. To
the Aranda there is no difference between the time of their ancestors and
the time during which they themselves dream. The term altjiranga mitjina,
and the culture that surrounds it, implies a very different relationship
to the world than we experience based on our Western objectifying consciousness.
To credit the concept of altjiranga mitjina with power and reality
the Aranda must approach the world from a different state of consciousness
than we do. Our normal daytime consciousness allows us to form theories
about dreams and dreaming, but we do not, without having developed higher
awareness, experience our ancestors as present among us in a kind of time-outside-time.
On the other hand, the more dream-like consciousness of altjiranga
mitjina does not lend itself to the perception of enduring objects.
Dream objects appear and disappear from the dream world in a way that
is not possible for objects in the world of our normal daytime consciousness.
The objects and the state of consciousness that engender them exist as
components of a self-supporting system. Physical objects only have their
characteristic externality because they take their genesis from a state
of consciousness that creates externality. In this context it is significant
that the aboriginal peoples of Australia created few enduring objects.
This lack of artifacts is compatible with the hypothesis that these peoples
cultivated a dream-like state of consciousness.
From these considerations we see that though a state
of consciousness that allows us to perceive an external world is necessary
for the creation of that world, it is not sufficient for this task. Reality
is a social construction, not an individual one. The creation and shaping
of consciousness in communities reinforces certain parts of our experience
at the expense of others. The experiences that are reinforced grow in our
experience, while those that find little or no reinforcement decline. The
reinforcement of certain parts of experience shapes our states of consciousness
because of the intimate relationship between consciousness its contents.
As we change the content of our consciousness, we also change conscious states.
Turning our attention to dreams put us in one state of consciousness. Giving
attention to physical objects puts us in another. As community processes
draw our attention to one or the other aspect of our experience, they influence
our state of consciousness. A community that accepts the reality of the
time-outside-time of altjiranga mitjina engenders a state of consciousness
that allows the experience of altjiranga mitjina. Altjiranga mitjina
is thus both an experience held by the members of a certain community, and
the state of consciousness out of which this experience is possible. In the
same way, a physical object is both an element of our experience, and the
state of consciousness out of which the object is constructed.
All states of consciousness are substantially influenced
by our social interactions: the culture we inhabit, the times we live in,
the institutions we attend, the company we keep. Owen Barfield 
makes a similar point in his elegant book on appearance and reality. He
marshals evidence to show that the medieval world was very different from
our own. The inhabitants of different historical periods took different kinds
of experiences to be about the real world. In this sense, history is a record
of changes in consciousness and the concomitant changes in the nature of
The picture that has emerged in the preceding sections
is one of an interdependence among states of consciousness, social groups,
and the constructed reality that is taken as real by these groups. None
of these components exists in isolation. They form a system in which the
individual elements are linked into a larger whole (Figure 1). The existence
of this whole makes it difficult to speak about the individual elements in
isolation. I have done so to make the nature of the system clear, but in
doing so I have emphasized one or two elements at the expense of the whole.
For instance, when I said that a specific state of consciousness engenders
specific experiences, I emphasized the creative power of consciousness and
played down the role of the community and realty, which cooperate in the
process of interpersonal validation of the contents of experience. Interpersonal
validations are built out of community interactions with the constructed
reality that the community takes to be real. In trying to make one of the
three parts of the system clear I inevitably downplay the role of the other
Each of the following aphorisms is an attempt to get beyond this problem.
Each aphorism starts at one of the points on the circle of dependency
(Figure 1), and moves counter-clockwise around the circle. All of the
aphorisms are equally true.
Reality: A shared perception of reality
defines and gives meaning to a community that maintains a state of consciousness
in a way that allows this realty to manifest itself.
The individual instances of
this tripartite system of reality, community and consciousness are archangels.
Though constituted differently, they share many characteristics with other
types of beings. They have their own qualities, tendencies, temporal extent,
and can be resistant to change. Just as different species of biological
organisms have different characteristics, different archangels have different
characters. We feel these characters through our experiences as members of
different communities. We experience the world differently when we are with
Community: Participation in a community
induces a state of consciousness that allows the World to manifest itself
in a way that is real to the community.
State of consciousness: A state of consciousness
takes as its content that aspect of the World that the community finds to
One way to move beyond the theoretical framework
given here and to come to a more direct experience of the archangels is
to recall that it feels different to be with different groups of people.
Our consciousness shifts as we come into contact with different groups.
What does it feel like to be at home with your family? How is this different
from what you feel in your place of employment? What does it feel like to
be with a crowd at a sporting event? How is this different from what you experience
at an anthroposophical lecture? We all experience these differences, but
seldom pay much attention to them. I suggest that they are the result of
subtle differences in the nature of the archangels that create the atmosphere
in each of these places or situations.
These questions point to minor changes in reality/ community/
consciousness systems that occur within a culture. It is between cultures
that more striking differences occur. Different cultures can be based
on radically different archangels. It feels different to live in these
cultures. This is true even within Europe. It feels different to be in
England than on the continent; different to be in France than Germany;
different to be in the Italian speaking part of Switzerland than in the
French speaking park. The differences are real and immediate. They illustrate
that archangels are not merely theoretical. As theory, they are systems.
As experience, they shape our lives.
As we begin to speak of reality/ community/ consciousness
systems as archangels, our natural tendency is to see the community of individuals
as the archangel. This does not do justice to the nature of systems, or
of archangels. The group is no more the archangel than is the state of consciousness
that is selected and maintained by the community or the reality that is
the context of this state. The archangel is the system of reality/ community/
consciousness that both transcends and is immanent in the elements that
compose the system. Reality is constructed both by communities and by states
of consciousness. None of these factors can be meaningfully isolated from
the others. From a systems perspective, reality is constructed out of the
context that is the system (Figure 1). The whole context, including reality
itself, is the cause of reality.
This article and the archangels
The state of consciousness out of which I wrote this paper was
engendered through readings and discussions with other people who share
similar ideas. While no one shared exactly my ideas, there were enough
similarities to make discussion possible. My views were shaped by these
readings and discussions. The more I think about, discuss, and write about
these ideas, the more clear they become both to me, and to those with whom
I interact. We begin to form a community that shares a specific state of
consciousness with a specific content. Knowledge of the structure of an
archangel is this content. The reality/ community/ consciousness system
I have just described is one of these archangels. My state of consciousness,
and yours as you assimilate this content, is an intrinsic part of this being.
1. Burns and Engdahl (1998) work toward a
similar understanding, but without linking it to Steiner's conception of
the archangels. Burns, T. R and Engdahl, E. (1998), 'The Social Construction
of Consciousness. Part 1: Collective Consciousness and Its Socio-Cultural
Foundations. Journal of Consciousness Studies 5, pp. 67-85.
2. Bortoft, H. (1996), The Wholeness of Nature (Hudson, NY: Lindisfarne
3. I use the word community in a very broad sense to mean a group of
individuals who feel themselves united by common views or in search for
a common goal. In this sense, a community can be as small as two people
or as large as a culture.
4. Husserl, E. (1913/1962), Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology
(New York: Collier Books).
5. Hypnagogic and hypnopompic states, pp. 74-114 in Tart, C. T. (1969),
Altered States of Consciousness (New York: John Wiley & Sons).
6. "World" is capitalized to indicate that is has a different meaning
from its non-capitalized form (world). It is difficult to explain, in a
short space, what I mean by the word "World." Barfield (1965) approaches my
meaning with his concept of the unrepresented. For Barfield, the unrepresented
is the ground of existence as described by contemporary physics. He is struck
by the discrepancy between our experiences and this underlying ground.
Faced with this discrepancy he concludes that the multitude of perceptions
that we call reality are really representations (or figurations, to use
his term) of the ground. I want to go one step farther. To me, the theories
of physics are also constructions of reality. We cannot rely on these theories
for a direct description of the ground of the world (the World). The World
is what reality is like before it is figured into perceptions by our sense
apparatus and thinking. We become aware of its existence only through our
experience of agreement/disagreement with other people. It is the basis
for all agreements and disagreements. I am tempted to say that the World
is that which underlies the content of consciousness: the content (reality)
on which communities agree. However, this formulation tends to objectify
the World, to give it thing-like qualities. The word "underlies" implies
that there is some physical thing that lies under the characteristic content
of our states of consciousness. The World cannot have thing-like characteristics
because the quality of "thingness" is a community creation as much as any
physical object. The World is no-thing with no-characteristics. At the same
time it is expressed in and through all things and all characteristics. It
is the no-thing expressed in all things. It is no-consciousness expressed
in all consciousness. In these senses, it is similar to the Buddhist concept
7. Rheingold, H. (1988), They Have a Word For It (Los Angeles, CA:
Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc.).
8. Barfield, O. (1965), Saving the Appearances (New York:
Harcourt, Brace & World).
© 2003 Bruce Kirchoff
Dr. Bruce Kirchoff is an Associate
Professor of Biology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro,