Karmic Relationships:
Esoteric Studies - Volume I

By Rudolf Steiner

Translation: George Adams; revisions: M. Cotterell, C. Davy & D.S. Osmond

Translated from shorthand reports unrevised by the lecturer. The original texts of the lectures are contained in Vol. 1 of the series entitled Esoterische Betrachtungen karmischer Zusammenhänge in the Complete Edition of Rudolf Steiner's works. (No. 235 in the Bibliographical Survey, 1961).

Lecture I

I now wish to begin to speak to you of the laws and conditions of human destiny, which, as you know, it has become customary to describe as karma. Karma, however, cannot be seen clearly unless we are prepared to learn to know the different kinds of universal law and universal activity. Therefore let me begin by speaking to you in a rather more abstract way of the different kinds of universal law and working, and later crystallise out, as it were, that special kind of working which can be called human destiny or karma.

Both when we try to comprehend the World's phenomena and when we wish to understand the phenomena of human life, we are wont to speak of “causes and effects.” Especially in science nowadays, people are accustomed to speak quite generally of “causes and effects.” Yet it is precisely this habit which leads into the greatest difficulties, in face of the true reality. For if we speak in this way, we are leaving out of account the variety of forms in which “cause and effect” actually occur in the universe.

To begin with we may observe the so-called lifeless Nature, which confronts us most clearly of all in the mineral kingdom. There are the marvellous forms which often meet us in the rocks and stones of the earth. There too is all that appears as though it were ground down to powder and compressed again into amorphous stone.

Let us consider, to begin with, all that thus appears to us as the lifeless in the world. When we consider the lifeless purely as such, we find invariably that we can seek within the lifeless itself whatever causes are at work in the lifeless realm. Wherever there is anything lifeless as an effect, there too — within the realm of the lifeless — we may look for the causes. And indeed, we only proceed according to true science if we do this — if we seek within the lifeless kingdom the causes of all lifeless processes.

However beautifully formed the crystal which you have before you, you must investigate its forms within the lifeless realm. This means that the lifeless kingdom is really self-contained. We may not be able to say, to begin with, where we shall find its bounds. They may be very far away in cosmic distances. Nevertheless, whatever lifeless process or effect confronts us, if we are looking for its causes, we must seek them — once again — within the realm of the lifeless.

Therewith, however, we are already placing the lifeless side by side with something else, and at once a certain perspective is opened out to us. Consider man himself — how he passes through the gate of death. All that was working and living in him before he went through the gate of death, has vanished from the tangible and visible form which remains behind when the soul passes on. Indeed, we say of this human shape which is left behind, that it is lifeless. Just as we speak of the lifeless when we look out over the rocks and mountains with their crystal forms, so must we speak of the lifeless when we behold the corpse of man, bereft of soul and spirit. And it is only from this moment that we can apply to the human body what applies to the rest of lifeless Nature from the outset.

For those effects which happened in and about the human form during life — before the soul had passed through the gate of death — we could not seek the causes within the lifeless realm. Not only that when a human being lifts his arm we shall look in vain within the lifeless-physical principles of the human form for the causes of the lifting of the arm. Moreover, in the physical-chemical laws which are present in the human form, we shall look equally in vain for the causes — let us say — of the heart-beat, the circulation of the blood, or any other, even involuntary process.

The moment this human form has become a corpse however, the moment the soul has passed through the gate of death, we also observe an effect in the human body. The colour changes in the skin, the limbs become inert — in short, all the effects appear that we are accustomed to witness in the corpse. Where shall we seek the cause? Within the corpse itself — in the chemical and physical, lifeless laws of the corpse.

Think to the end, in all directions, what I am indicating (for I am doing no more than indicate it), and you will say to yourself: As to his corpse, man, when his soul has passed through the gate of death, has become equal to lifeless Nature. Henceforth we must seek the causes of the effects in the same realm in which the effects themselves are.

This is very important, but precisely when we envisage this characteristic of the human corpse, we find another very significant fact. At death, the human being, so to speak, lays aside his body. Observe with the necessary spiritual faculties what the real man — the man of soul and spirit — has now become, and you will say: The corpse has now been laid aside. For the real man of soul and spirit, having arrived beyond the gate of death, this corpse has no longer significance. It has been cast aside.

For outer lifeless Nature it is quite different. Observe even superficially, and you perceive the difference. Look at a human corpse. You can observe it best where it is buried — so to speak — in the air. Certain communities used to use underground caverns as burial-places, and we there find human corpses simply suspended in the air. They dry until they are completely rotten; you only need to touch them slightly, and they fall asunder into dust.

The “lifeless” which we thus obtain is different from what we find as lifeless Nature all around us. The latter contains a formative, configurative process, giving rise to crystal shapes. Moreover it is in constant change. Apart from the earthy element as such, if we observe the water and the air — which are also lifeless — we find it all in mobility and metamorphosis and transformation.

Nevertheless, let this be placed before our souls at the outset: the equivalence of the human body as to its lifeless nature, after the soul has laid it aside, with the lifeless world of Nature outside of man.

And now we may go farther. Study the plant kingdom. Here we come into the sphere of living things. Study the plant in a real way, and we shall find that we are never able to account for the effects merely from causes which lie within the plant kingdom — in the same kingdom where the effects occur. No doubt, there is a science nowadays which tries to do so, but it is in a blind-alley! It is at last obliged to say: “We can investigate the physical and also the chemical forces and laws at work in the plant. Something is then left over ...” And at this point they diverge, so to speak, into two parties. On the one hand are those who say: “What is left over is a mere synthesis — a kind of form. The physical and chemical laws are the sole effective principle.” “No,” say the others, “there is something more, which science has not yet discovered, but it will do so no doubt in time.” — They will go on speaking like this for a long while yet. For it is not so. If you wish to make research into the plant kingdom you cannot understand it without summoning the whole universe to your aid. You must perceive that the forces for the plant-activity lie in the wide universe. All that takes place in the plant is an effect of the great universe. Before any effects can take place in plant-life, the sun must come into a certain position in the universe. And other forces too must work from the wide universe, to give the plant its form, its inner forces of growth and so on.

Now, if we were able — not in a Jules Verne — fashion, but in reality — to travel say to the moon or to the sun, there too we should not be much wiser in our quest of causes than we are on earth, if we acquired no other faculties of knowledge than those we now possess. We should not reach our goal merely by saying, “Well and good: the causes of effects occurring in the plant kingdom of the earth are not to be found in this kingdom on the earth itself. Let us therefore go to the sun; there we shall find the causes.” No, not at all, there too we shall not find them with the ordinary faculties of knowledge. We find them however when we work our way up to Imaginative Cognition — i.e. when we possess quite a new faculty of knowledge. But then we do not need to travel to the sun; we find them in the earth-domain itself. Only we have to pass from “one world” into another; from the everyday physical into the etheric, the ether-world. In the wide universal spaces on every hand, the cosmic ether with its forces is working. It works inward from the wide spaces. The ether is working in on every hand, from the wide spaces.

Thus, if we wish to find the causes of the effects in the plant in this kingdom, we must actually pass into a second realm of the universe.

Now man also partakes in what the plant partakes in. The forces working into the plants out of the ether-world, work also into man. Man carries in himself the etheric forces, and we describe the sum-total of these etheric forces which he carries within him, as the human ether-body. I have already told you how the ether-body goes on expanding for a few days after man's death, and how at last it loses itself, so that the human being remains over only in his astral body and his Ego-being.

That which man carried with him etherically, becomes ever larger and larger and loses itself in world-wide distances.

And now once more: compare what we can see of man after his passage through the gate of death, with that which we see in the plant kingdom. Of the plant kingdom we must say: its causative forces come in to the earth from the widths of space. Of the human ether-body we must say: its forces go outward into the widths of space. That is, they go whence the forces of plant-growth come — as soon as man has passed through the gate of death.

Here it already becomes clearer. When we observe only the physical corpse, though we recognise that it becomes lifeless, we do not find it easy to relate it to the rest of lifeless Nature. When on the other hand we consider the living kingdom of plants, when we become aware how the causes, the forces for the plant-kingdom come inward from the ether of cosmic space, then — as we enter with spiritual imagination into the human being — we perceive that with man's passage through the gate of death the human ether-body goes thither, whence come the forces, the ether-forces, for the plant kingdom.

Now there is another characteristic. The causative forces that affect the plants, work comparatively quickly. The day before yesterday's sun has little influence upon the plant as it springs from the soil or receives blossom and fruit. The day before yesterday's sun can have little effect today with all its causes. To take effect today, it must shine today. This point is important; mark it well. You will presently see how important it is.

The plants with their etheric causes have, it is true, their actual fundamental forces within the earthly realm, but they have them in the universe simultaneously with the earth.

And when man as a soul-and-spirit being has passed through the gate of death, when the human ether-body dissolves, this again lasts but a short time — only a few days. Here again you have simultaneity. For the duration of the world-process, the few days are a mere trifle. Thus, when the human ether-body returns to where the forces for plant growth — the ether-forces — come from, we can say: As soon as man is living in the ether, his etheric activity is not restricted to the earth (for on the contrary, it leaves the earth), nevertheless, it develops simultaneously. Hence I may write for you this scheme:

Mineral Kingdom; Simultaneity of causes and effects within the physical.

Yes, you will say, but surely the causes of some things that take place in the physical are antecedent in time. No, it is not so in reality. For any effects to arise in the physical, the causes must continue working. As soon as the causes cease working, no more effects will occur. Thus we can truly write:

Mineral Kingdom; Simultaneity of causes, within the physical.

And when we come into the plant kingdom (and the same will apply to the plant-nature which we can trace in man himself), there we have simultaneity in the physical and in the super-physical, so we may write:

Plant Kingdom; Simultaneity of causes in the physical and super-physical.

Now let us approach the animal kingdom. In the animal kingdom we shall investigate in vain within the animal itself the effects that occur during the creature's life. If it no more than crawls along in search of food — in the physical and chemical processes to be found within its body we shall seek in vain for the causes of these effects. We shall also seek in vain in the wide ether-spaces, where we find the causes for plant-nature. There too we shall look in vain for the causes of animal movement and animal sensation. For all that is plant-like in the animal and in its processes, we shall find the causes in the etheric spaces. And when it dies, the ether-body of the animal too goes outward into the wide universal ether. But for sensation we shall never find the causes within the realms of the earthly-physical, nor of the super-physical and etheric. We shall not find them there.

Here, even more, we come to a point where the modern idea is following up a blind alley. Indeed to some extent it has to admit it. For many a phenomenon that occurs in the animal — all the phenomena of sensation, movement, etc., — we must admit: If we investigate the physical and chemical forces within the animal, we cannot find the causes. And in the cosmic spaces — in the ether-spaces of the universe — there too we cannot find the causes. If I would explain a flower I must go out into the widths of the ether-cosmos. Out of the ether-universe I shall be able to explain the flower. Likewise I shall be able to explain many things that are plant-like in the animal. But I shall never be able to explain, even from the ether-universe, that which occurs in the animal as movement and sensation.

Suppose I observe an animal on the 20th June. For its sensation processes, I shall not find the causes on the 20th of June — not if I seek through all the realms of space within the earthly realm and beyond. And if I go farther back, there too I shall not find them — neither in May, nor in April ...

Modern science even feels that it is so. Hence it explains some at least of what is thus unexplainable, by referring it to “heredity,” that is, by a word. It is “inherited.” It comes down from the ancestors. Not of course everything (that would be too grotesque), but much of it-it is simply “inherited.”

What is the meaning of this phrase? In the last resort, the concept of heredity amounts to this: All that confronts us in the animal, with all its manifold configurations, was potentially contained in the germ-cell of the mother-animal. Such is the effort of modern science: to study the ox externally, in the untold variety of its forms, and then to say: The ox comes from the germ-cell. There were already the forces which in their full growth and development have given rise to the ox. Accordingly, the germ-cell is an extremely complex body ... It would indeed have to be appallingly complex, this germ-cell of the ox. For it would have to contain all that presses and moulds and twists and turns and works so that the tiny germ-cell may become the ox with its manifold forms.

However you may twist and turn it (and there are many theories — evolution, epigenesis, and so on ...) however you may twist it, it comes to this. In the last resort you must conceive the germ-cell, the minute ovum, as appallingly complicated. And where all things are referred to molecules, supposed to be built up in great complication from the atoms, some scientists are prone to represent the first rudiment of the germ-cell as a complex molecule. But this, my dear friends, does not even accord with physical observation.

Is the germ-cell really a molecule or an organism so complicated? Its peculiar quality lies not at all in complication, but on the contrary: it throws all the matter back into chaos. The germ-cell of all things, in the mother-body, is not a complicated structure, but a material utterly pulverised — chaoticised. It is not organised at all. It is something that falls back into an utterly unorganised, pulverised condition. Never could reproduction take place if it were not for this. Precisely in the egg, unorganised, lifeless matter — which tends to crystalline formation — falls back into complete chaos. Albumen is not the most complicated body, but the very simplest, entirely void of inherent determination. Out of this tiny chaos which the germ-cell is to begin with, no ox could ever arise — no, not in all eternity. For it is really chaos.

Why then does it become the ox? Because at this stage the whole universe proceeds to work upon the germ-cell in the mother organism. Precisely inasmuch as it has become chaos — void of determination in itself — the entire universe can work upon it. Fertilisation has no other object in the world than to reduce matter again to chaos, to the indeterminate void, so that no other entity is working but the pure universe.

But now if we look within the mother-body — there are not the causes. If we look outside into the universal ether — there too, in what takes place simultaneously, are not the causes. We must go back, before the animal came into being, if we would find the causes of what is germinating there as the beginning of a creature capable of sensation and movement. We must go back, before the creature's life began. For all that is capable of sensation and movement, the world of causes lies not in the simultaneous, but before the creature's origin.

If it is a plant which I observe, I must go out into the simultaneous, although in the far and wide universe. There I shall find the cause. But if I want to find the cause of all that works as sensation or capacity of movement in the animal, I can no longer go into the simultaneous universe. I must go into that which precedes the creature's life. In other words, the constellation of the stars must have become different. What influences the specifically animal nature is not the constellation in the universe simultaneous with the animal, but the constellation of the stars preceding the animal's life.

Here again, let us turn our thoughts to man after his passage through the gate of death. When he has passed the gate of death, when he has laid aside his ether-body which goes into the wide cosmic spaces — to every place whence come the ether-forces of plant-growth — man must go backward, as I have told you, until his birth. When he has done so, then he has undergone, in backward progress in his astral body, all that he underwent during his life. Thus, with his astral body after death, he has not to enter what is simultaneous, but he must wend his way back to the pre-natal. He must go thither, whence come the forces which provide the animal with faculties of movement and sensation. They do not come from the realm of space, from the constellations which are simultaneous; they come from the antecedent constellations of the stars. If therefore we are speaking of the animal kingdom, we can no longer speak of simultaneity of causes in the physical and super-physical; we must refer the present effects of the physical to past super-physical causes. Thus, for the Animal kingdom: Past super-physical causes — present effects.

Once again, we enter the concept of time. To put it trivially, we must go for a walk in time. In the physical world, when we are looking for the causes of things that happen there, we move about in the physical. We do not need to leave the physical. And if we are seeking the causes of anything that is brought about in the living kingdom of plants, we must go very far away. We must sweep through the ether-world, and only where the ether-world is at an end — where, as in fairy-tale language, we come to the end of the world — there do we find the causes of plant-growth. But we can wander there as we will; we shall not find there the causes of the faculties of sensation or of movement. To do so, we must set out on a pilgrimage in time. We must go backward in time. We must go out of space, and into time.

As to causation, therefore, we can place the human physical body in its lifeless condition side by side with external lifeless Nature. And we can place-the human ether-body — both in its life and in its outward passage after death into the ether-spaces — side by side with the etheric life of the plants; for this too comes in from the ether-spaces, though from the simultaneous constellations, of that which is beyond the physical, above the earth. Moreover, we can relate the human astral body to the outer animal world.

Now, when in further progress from mineral nature to plant and animal, we come at length to the human kingdom proper, perhaps you will say, “We have already considered it.” Yes, but not altogether. We have considered it inasmuch as the human being has a physical body; then inasmuch as he has an ether-body; and thirdly, inasmuch as he has an astral body. But you will recognise: if man merely had his physical body, he would be a crystal — even it perhaps a very complicated one. And if in addition he only had his ether-body, he would be a mere plant — no matter, perhaps, how beautiful. And if he even had the astral body added, then he would go on all fours; he would have horns, or the like; in a word, he would be an animal. All this, he is not. He has the form and figure he possesses as an upright-walking being, because he also possesses the Ego-organisation, over and above the physical, etheric and astral. To this being alone, who also has the organisation of the Ego, we can apply the name: human kingdom.

Let us observe once more what we have already seen. If we are seeking the causes for the physical, we can remain within the physical. If we are seeking the causes for plant-nature, we must go out into the wide ether-realms. We can still remain within space — though, as I said, this “space” becomes a little hypothetical, so that we have recourse to fairy-like conceptions, as when we say “the end of the world — where the world is boarded up.” Yet it is so. Why, even they who only think along the lines of present-day research are now beginning to divine that in some sense there is such a thing as the end of the world — “where the world is boarded up.” It is of course a childlike and crude expression. But we need only remember the childlike way in which people are wont to think: There is the sun, it sends out its rays, on and ever on. The rays grow-weaker and weaker, it is true, yet the light goes on and on, ever away, into the infinite.

To those who have been at these lectures for years past, I have long ago explained what nonsense it is to imagine that the light goes on and on in this way, into the endless void. Often and often I have said, the expansion of light is subject to a kind of elasticity. If you have an india-rubber ball and you indent it here — you can continue pressing up to a certain point; then it springs back again. There is an end to the elastic pressure; then it recoils. It is the same for the light: it does not go on and out into the endless void. When it has reached a certain limit, it comes back again.

This very idea — that the light does not go on indefinitely, but to a certain limit, whence it returns — has recently been upheld, for example, in England, by the physicist Oliver Lodge. Thus, even outer science has come to the point of maintaining in this instance what is declared by spiritual science; as indeed, in time to come, it will arrive in every detail at the things which spiritual science expounds.

So likewise we may say: Out there, if we think our way far enough outward, sooner or later we must think back again. We must not assume a mere endless space which is a fantasy and moreover, one which we cannot grasp. Some of you may recall what I related in my autobiography of the deep impression it made on me, when I attended classes on modern Synthetic Geometry, and when for the first time it was shown me through Geometry itself that a straight line should not be conceived as though it went out into the endless void and never ceased. The line that goes outward in this direction, actually returns from the opposite side. Geometry expresses it by saying that the infinitely distant point to the right is identical with the infinitely distant point to the left. This can be found by exact calculation — not by the mere analogy of a circle, where, if you set out from here, you will eventually get back again to the same point, and if you then imagine the diameter infinitely long the circle will become a straight line. That would be a mere analogy, of little or no value to one who can think exactly. I was impressed, not by this trivial analogy, but by the possibility of real arithmetical proof, that the infinitely distant point on the one side — to the left — is the same as the infinitely distant point to the right. So that one who begins to run from here and runs on and on along the line will not run out into the endless void; if he only runs on for long enough, he will come back to meet us from the other side. To physical thinking it may seem grotesque. The moment we set aside physical thinking it is a reality. The world is not endless. As physical world, such as it lies before us here, it is limited.

Once more then, we may say: To deal with the plant-nature and with the etheric nature in man, we must go to the very limits of the ether. But if we wish to explain the animal nature, and the astral in man, we must go right outside all that there is in space. We must go for a walk, in time — beyond all that is contemporaneous; we must move forward in time. And now we come to the human kingdom.

When we thus come into time, you see, we are already transcending the physical in a twofold way. In order to describe the animal you must move on in time. But at this stage you must not abstractly pursue the line of thought; you must continue concretely. I beg you now observe, how we continue the line of thought concretely.

People think, when the sun sends out its light, that the light goes endlessly on and on. Oliver Lodge, however, shows that this kind of thought is already beginning to be left behind. They are beginning to realise that you get to a certain limit and thence come back again. The sun receives its light sent back to it again from all directions — though in another form, in a transmuted form, still it receives it back again.

Now let us apply the same kind of thought to the progression we have just followed. We stayed, to begin with, in space. Then, earthly space remained there within, while we must go out into the universe. But even that was not enough, for at the next stage we go out into time. Now, someone might say, we must go on still further — on and on. No, on the contrary; now we come back again. Just as it is when we go on and on into space: we get to a limit and thence return; so do we here come back again. Having looked in the distances of time for the past super-physical causes we must return again into the physical.

What does this mean in reality? It signifies that out of time we must come down again on to the earth. If we would seek the causes that apply to man as such, we must seek them once more on earth. Only we have gone backward in time, and I need hardly say: when, going backward in time, we come again on to the earth, we come into a former life of man. We come into a former life. For the animal we have to go on and on. It dissolves away in time, just as our ether-body dissolves away to the utmost limits ... Man, at this point does not dissolve away; we must come back again, even into his former life on earth. Therefore, in man's case, we can say: Past physical causes, for present effects within the physical.

Mineral kingdom: Simultaneity of causes, within the physical.

Plant kingdom: Simultaneity of causes, in the physical and super-physical.

Animal kingdom: Past super-physical causes, corresponding to present effects.

Human kingdom: Past physical causes, corresponding to present effects in the physical.

You see, it has cost us some pains today, by way of preparation, to enter into these abstractions. But that was necessary. I wanted to show you that there is also a logic for these realms — the really spiritual realms of life. This logic is only not coincident with the crude logic which is merely abstracted from physical phenomena, and in which alone people will commonly believe.

Proceeding purely logically, investigating all the series of causes, even in the pure course of thought we came to the repeated lives of man on earth. We need to be attentive to this fact: our thought itself must become different if we would apprehend the spiritual.

People imagine that one cannot understand what is revealed out of the spiritual world. One can indeed, but one must extend one's logic. After all, even to understand a piece of music or any other work of art, you must have in you the conditions to go out to meet it. If you have not the conditions, you will pass by it without appreciation — as a mere noise, if it is music; or if it is plastic art, you will “see nothing in it” but the crude obvious forms. And so for the communications from the spiritual world: you must meet them with a thinking adequate to the spiritual world. And this can already be found in pure logical thinking. Seek out the possible varieties of causes, and you can actually come to understand repeated earthly lives, even in logical consequence.

Now we remain with the great question which is opened up when we consider the corpse. The corpse has become lifeless. External lifeless Nature stands there before us in its crystals and manifold formations. Here the great question arises: How is lifeless Nature related to the corpse of Man?

Perhaps you will find that it will lead you on a little in a direction tending towards the answer, if you first seize the matter at the second stage. Say to yourselves: I look at the world of plants around me. Out of the wide spaces of the ether-universe, it bears within it the forces to which my own ether-body returns. Away up yonder in the ether-spaces, is the causative principle which gives the plants their origin. There is the realm to which my ether-body goes when it has served my life. Thither I go, whence — from the ether-spaces — all the life of plants wells forth. Thither I go: that is, I am akin to it. In fact, I can even say: something is there, up yonder. Thither my ether-body goes. Thence comes the greening, springing, sprouting world of plants. Yet there is a difference. I give up my ether-body; the plants on the other hand receive the ether for their life and growth. I, after my death, give my ether-body away; give it away as a thing that is left behind. They on the other hand — the plants-receive this ether-body, as that which gives them life. They have their beginning from yonder realm whither I go with my ending. The plants' beginning joins together with the human ether-body's ending.

This will bring near to you the question: Might it not also be so for the mineral, for all the manifold crystal formations? Might I not ask: perhaps this too is a beginning, in contrast to the ending which, of myself, I leave behind as the physical corpse? Perhaps here too, beginning and ending are joined together?

With this question we will close for today, my dear friends. Tomorrow we shall begin to enter quite thoroughly the question of human destiny: so-called karma. I shall continue about karma. You will no longer have to find your way through such a jungle of abstractions; but you will also perceive that for a certain unfolding of thought this was a necessary preparation.

Continued in the next issue of SCR.

Thanks to the Rudolf Steiner Archive.

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