Karmic Relations
by Rudolf Steiner

Volume II, Lecture 4

Dornach, April 26, 1924

Henrik Ibsen


Studies that are concerned with the karma of human beings must be undertaken with deep earnestness and inwardly assimilated. For it is not the mere knowledge of some particular karmic connection that is important. What is really important is that such studies should quicken the whole of man's nature, enabling him to find his bearings in life. Such studies will never be fruitful if they lead to greater indifference towards human beings than is otherwise the case; they will be fruitful only if they kindle deeper love and understanding than are possible when account is taken merely of the impressions of a single life.

Anyone who reviews the successive epochs in the evolution of humanity cannot fail to realise that in the course of history very much has changed in man's whole way of thinking and perception, in all his views of the world and of life. Generally speaking, man is less interested in the past than in the future, for which the foundations have yet to be laid. But anyone who has a sufficiently clear grasp of how the souls of men have changed in the course of the earth's evolution will not shrink from the necessity of having himself to undergo the change that will lead him to study, not merely the single earthly life of some individual, but the succession of earthly lives, in so far as these can be brought within the range of his vision.

I think that the examples given in the last lecture — Conrad Ferdinand Meyer, Pestalozzi, and others — can show how understanding of a personality, love for this personality, can be enhanced when the latest earth-life is viewed against the background of other lives of which it is the outcome.

And now, in order that our studies may be really fruitful, I want to return to a question to which, as many of those present here will know, I have already alluded. Reference is often made in spiritual science to the existence in olden times of Initiates possessed of clairvoyant vision, personalities who were able to communicate the secrets of the spiritual world. And from this the question quite naturally arises: Where are these Initiates in our own time? Have they reincarnated?

To answer this question it is necessary to point out how greatly a later earth-life may differ from a preceding one in respect of knowledge and also in respect of other activities of the soul. For when in the time between death and a new birth the moment approaches for the human being to descend to the earth and unite with a physical-etheric organisation, a very great deal has to take place. The direction towards family, race and so forth, has indeed long been determined, but the resolve to undergo this tremendous change in the form of existence, the change involved in the transition from the world of soul-and-spirit into the physical world — this resolve is a stupendous matter. For as you can well imagine, circumstances are not as they are on earth, where the human being grows weaker as he approaches the end of his normal life; after all his experiences on earth he will actually have little to do with the decision to enter into a different form of existence when he passes through the gate of death. The change, in this case, comes upon him of itself, it breaks in upon him.

Here on earth, death is something that breaks in upon man. The descent from the spiritual world is completely different. It is a matter, then, of fully conscious action, a deliberate decision proceeding from the deepest foundations of the soul. We must realise what a stupendous transformation takes place in the human being when the time comes for him to exchange the forms of life in the pre-earthly existence of soul-and-spirit for those of earthly existence. The descent entails adaptation to the prevailing conditions of civilisation and culture and also to the bodily constitution which a particular epoch is able to provide. Our own epoch does not readily yield bodies — let alone conditions of culture and civilisation — in which Initiates can live again as they lived in the past. And when the time approaches for the soul of some former Initiate to use a physical body once again, it is a matter of accepting this body as it is, and of growing into the environment and the current form of education. But what once was present in this soul is not lost; it merely comes to expression in some other way. The basic configuration of the soul remains but assumes a different form.

Now in the 3rd and 4th centuries A.D. it was still possible for the soul to acquire a deep knowledge of Initiation truths, because at that time, especially in Southern Europe and Asia Minor, body followed soul, that is to say, the bodily functions were able to adapt themselves inwardly to the soul. One who may have lived in the early Christian centuries as an Initiate, with a soul wholly inward-turned and full of wisdom, is obliged to descend today into a kind of body which, owing to the intervening development, is directed pre-eminently to the external world, lives altogether in the external world. The result is that owing to the bodily constitution, the inner concentration of soul-forces that was still possible in the 3rd or 4th century of our era, is so no longer. And so the following could take place in the course of evolution. — I am telling you of things that reveal themselves to inner vision.

There was a certain Mystery-centre in Asia Minor, typical of all such institutions in that part of the world in the early Christian centuries. Traditions were everywhere alive in those olden days when men were deeply initiated into these Mysteries. But everywhere, too, men were more or less aware of the rules that must be imposed on the soul in order to acquire knowledge leading to its own deep foundations, as well as out into the cosmic All. And in the early Christian centuries these very Mysteries of Asia Minor were occupied with a momentous question.

Boundless wisdom had streamed through the sanctuaries of the Mysteries. If you will read what was described in my book Christianity as Mystical Fact — as far as description was possible in a printed publication at that time — you will see that the ultimate aim of all this wisdom was an understanding of the Mystery of Golgotha. And in these Mysteries of Asia Minor the great question was: How will the sublime content of the Mystery of Golgotha, the reality of what has streamed into the earth through the Mystery of Golgotha — how will it evolve further in the hearts and minds of men? And how will the ancient, primeval wisdom — a wisdom that encompassed the Beings who have their habitations in the stars and the manifold orders of Divine-Spiritual Beings who guide the universe and the life of man — how will this primeval wisdom unite with what is concentrated in the Mystery of Golgotha? How will it unite with the Impulse which, proceeding from a sublime Sun-Being, from the Christ, is now to pour into mankind? — That was the burning question in these Mysteries of Asia Minor.

There was one personality who with his Mystery-wisdom and Mystery-experiences felt this question with overwhelming intensity. It is in truth a shattering experience when in the search for karmic connections one comes upon this man who was initiated in one of these Mysteries in Asia Minor in the early Christian centuries. It is a shattering experience, for with his Initiation-knowledge he was aware in every fibre of his being of the need to grasp the meaning and import of the Mystery of Golgotha, and he was faced with the problem: What will happen now? How will these weak human souls be able to receive it?

Weighed down in soul by this burning question concerning the destiny of Christianity, this Initiate was walking one day in the wider precincts of his Mystery-centre, when an experience came to him of an event that made an overwhelming impression — the treacherous murder of Julian the Apostate. With the vision and insight of Initiation he lived through this event.

It was known to him that Julian the Apostate had attained a certain degree of Initiation in the ancient Mysteries, that he wanted to preserve for the spiritual life of mankind, the impulses that had been cultivated in the ancient Mysteries, to ensure their continuance, in short to unite Christianity with the wisdom of the Mysteries. He knew that Julian the Apostate proclaimed, in the sense of the Mystery-wisdom, that as well as the physical Sun there is also a Spiritual Sun, and that whoever knows the Spiritual Sun, knows Christ. But this, teaching was regarded as evil in the days of Julian the Apostate and led to his treacherous murder on his journey to Persia. This most significant, symptomatic event in world-history was lived through by the Initiate of whom I am speaking.

Those of you who for many years have been listening to what has been said on the subject of karmic connections in world-history, will remember that in the lectures I once gave in Stuttgart on certain chapters of occult history — reference was also made to the same theme at the Christmas Foundations Meeting [Lecture-Course XVI. Occult History. Stuttgart, December 27th–31st, 1910 and January 1st, 1911. World-History in the Light of Anthroposophy. Dornach. December 24th–31st, 1923.] — I spoke of the deep tragedy of Julian the Apostate's position in the history of humanity.

His death was felt and experienced by the Initiate to whom I am now referring, whose Initiate-knowledge, received in a Mystery-centre in Asia Minor, was shadowed by the question: What will become of Christianity? And through these symptomatic events there came to him the crystal-clear realisation: A time will come when Christianity will be misunderstood, will live only in traditions, when people will no longer know anything of the glory and sublimity of Christ, the Sun-Spirit Who dwelt in Jesus of Nazareth.

All this lay like a weight upon the soul of the Initiate. And for the rest of his life at that time he was heavy-hearted and sorrowful in regard to the evolution of Christianity. He experienced the consternation and dismay which a symptomatic event of the kind referred to must inevitably cause in an Initiate. — It made an overwhelming, shattering impression upon him.

And then we go further. — The impression received by this Initiate was bound to lead to a reincarnation comparatively soon afterwards — in point of fact at the time of the Thirty Years' War, when very many outstanding, interesting incarnations took place, incarnations that have played an important part in the historical evolution of mankind.

The Initiate was born again as a woman, at the beginning of the 17th century, before the actual outbreak of the Thirty Years' War. She lived on into the time of the conflict and was in contact with certain attempts that were made from the side of Rosicrucianism to correct the tendencies of the age and to make preparation in a spiritual way for the future. This work, however, was largely overshadowed and submerged by the savagery and brutality prevailing during the Thirty Years' War. Think only of the Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreuz which appeared shortly before its outbreak. And many other significant impulses came into the life of mankind at that time, before being stamped out or brutalised by the War.

This personality, who as an Initiate had experienced the deeply symptomatic event connected with Julian the Apostate and had then passed through the incarnation as a woman in the 17th century, was born again in the 19th century. All that had become even more inward during the incarnation as a woman, all that had formerly been present in the soul — not the Initiation-wisdom but the horror caused by the terrible event — all this, in the last third of the 19th century, poured into a peculiarly characteristic view of the world which penetrated deeply into the prevailing incongruities of human existence.

The whole tenor and trend of the present age is such that it is difficult for one who has carried over ancient Initiation-wisdom from an earlier earth-life into the life of the 19th and 20th centuries, to work effectively through deeds. And so, in this case, what was brought over — deeply transformed and apparently externalised, though in reality still inward — pressed its way from the heart — the seat of the old Initiation-wisdom — towards the senses and sense-observation, striving to find expression in poetry, in literature.

That is the reason why recent times have produced so many really splendid examples of literature. Only they are incoherent, they are simply not intelligible as they stand. For they have been created not only by the personality who was present on earth at the end of the 19th or beginning of the 20th centuries, but an additional factor has been some experience in a past life such as I have related, an experience that had such a shattering effect upon an Initiate — albeit an Initiate in Mysteries already decadent. This shattering experience in the soul works on, streams into artistic, poetic qualities of soul — and what, in this case, comes over in so characteristic a way, lives itself out in the personality of Henrik Ibsen.

When this vista is open to one, the secrets of the evolution of humanity light up from writings which appeared at the end of the 19th century and which cannot be the work of a single man but of a man through whom and in whom earlier epochs are also coming to expression.

In approaching a theme like this, we shall certainly not lose respect either for the course taken by world-history or for the single personality who stands before us with greatness and distinction. In very truth, the experiences that come upon one in this domain are shattering — that is to say when such matters are pursued with the necessary earnestness.

Now you will often have heard tell of an alchemist who lived in a comparatively early period of the Middle Ages: Basilius Valentinus His achievements in the spheres of medicine and alchemy were of momentous significance and to study him in connection with karmic relationships in world-history leads to remarkable results, results which show very clearly how difficult it is to understand the age in which we ourselves are living. Many things in our time are not only incomprehensible but often repellent, disagreeable, horrifying in a certain respect, and if we look at life merely as it is perceptible to the senses, it is impossible not to feel indignation and disgust.

It is different, however, for one who can perceive the human and historical connections. Things are by no means what they seem! Traits may show themselves in life today for which the onlookers have, quite understandably, nothing but censure and indignation. And yet all the time, even in the unpleasant elements themselves, there may be something that is intensely fascinating. This will be the case more and more frequently.

As I said, there in the early Middle Ages we find Basilius Valentinus, a Benedictine monk, engaged in the pursuit of medicine and alchemy in his cellars in the monastery and making a number of important investigations. There are others with him who are his pupils and they write down what Basilius Valentinus has said to them. Consequently there are hardly any original writings of Basilius Valentinus himself; but there are writings of pupils which contain a great deal that is genuinely his wisdom, his alchemical wisdom.

Now when, at a certain time of my life, one of the pupils of Basilius Valentinus who especially interested me came into my field of vision, I realised: This pupil is again in incarnation, but spiritually there has been a remarkable metamorphosis. He has come again in the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century.

But the alchemical activity, directed without co-ordination towards the senses, manifested outwardly as a view of life in which alchemical concepts are always, so to speak, being welded into sense-observations. In this later incarnation the man observes external facts — how people act, how things happen among them, how they talk to one another — and he groups it all together in a way that is often repellent. But the explanation lies in the fact that the personality in question had, in an earlier incarnation, worked at alchemy under Basilius Valentinus. And now he jumbles everything together — the relationships between people, how they behave to one another, what they say, what they do and so forth. He does not look at these things with the eyes of a modern philistine — far from it! — but with the eye of a soul in which impulses from his former alchemical pursuits are still alive. He jumbles up events that occur among men, makes dramas out of them, and becomes: Frank Wedekind.

These things must of course be studied in pursuance of a longing for a genuine understanding of man. When this is the case, life becomes, not poorer, but infinitely richer. Take Wedekind's ‘Hidalla’ or any other of his dramas which make the brain reel when one attempts to find the thread connecting what comes first with what comes later. Yet there is something fascinating about it for anyone who can look beyond the surface, and the commonplace judgments of the critics sitting in the stalls will leave him untouched. From their own standpoint, of course, these critics are justified — but that is of no account. The real point is that world-history has here produced a strange and remarkable phenomenon. — Alchemical thinking, flung as it were across centuries, is now applied to human life and human deeds; these, together with human rules and standards are all jumbled into a hotchpotch, just as once in alchemical kitchens — at a time when alchemy was already on the decline — substances and their forces were mixed in retorts and tests made of their effects.

Even in respect of the point of time at which they occur on earth, the lives of men are determined by connections of destiny and karma. Let me give you another example in corroboration of this.

We turn our gaze back to the time when the Platonic School flourishes in Greece. There was Plato, surrounded by a number of pupils. In their characters these pupils differed greatly from one another and what Plato himself depicts in the Dialogues, where characters of the most varied types appear and converse together, is in many respects a true picture of his School. Very different characters came together in this School.

In the School there were two personalities in particular who imbibed, each in a very different way, all that fell from Plato's lips, bringing such sublime illumination to his pupils, and that he also carried further in conversations with them.

One of these two pupils was a personality of rare sensitivity and refinement. He was particularly receptive to everything that Plato did, through his teaching on the Ideas, to lift men's minds and hearts above the things of earth. Everywhere we find Plato affirming that over against the transitoriness of the single events in man's life and environment, stand the Eternal Ideas. The material world is transitory; but the material world is only a picture of the Idea which — itself eternal — passes in perpetual metamorphoses through the temporal and the transitory. Thus did Plato lift his pupils above the transitory things belonging to the external world of sense to contemplation of the eternal Ideas which hover over them as the heavens hover over the earth.

But in this Platonic treatment of the world, man in his true being fares rather badly. For the Platonic conceptions and mode of thinking cannot properly be applied to man, in whom the Idea itself becomes alive in objective reality. Man is too individual. The Ideas, according to Plato, hover above the things. This is true in respect of the minerals, crystals and the other phenomena of the lifeless sense-world; Goethe too, while on the track of the archetypal plant [the ‘Urpflanze] was observing the varying types; and the same applies in the case of the animals. With man, however, it is a matter of seeking the living Idea within each single human individuality. It was Aristotle — not Plato — who taught that the Idea as entelechy has entered into the human being.

The first of the two pupils shared with whole-hearted fervour in this heavenward flight in Platonism. With his spiritual vision he could accompany Plato in this heavenward flight, in this soaring above the earth, and words of mellowed sweetness would fall from his lips in the Platonic School on the sublimity of the Ideas that hover over and above the things of earth. In his soul he soared to the Ideas. When he was not lingering in his world of vision but living again in his heart and mind, going about among the Greeks as he loved to do, he took the warmest interest in every human being with whom he came into contact. It was only when he had come down as it were to everyday life that his heart and feelings could be focused upon the many whom he loved so well, for his visions drew him away from the earth. And so in this pupil there was a kind of split between the life of heart when he was among living human beings and the life of soul when he was transported to the Eternal Ideas, when he was listening in the Academy to Plato's words or was himself formulating in words full of sweetness, the inspirations brought by Platonism. There was something wonderfully sensitive about this personality.

Now a close and intimate friendship existed between this man and another pupil in the Platonic School. But in the course of it, a different trend of character which I will now describe, was developing in the friend, with the result that the two grew apart. Not that their love for one another cooled, but in their whole way of thinking they grew apart; life separated them. They were able, at first, to understand one another well, but later on even this was no longer possible. And it led to the one I have described becoming irritable and ‘nervy’ as we should say to-day, whenever the other spoke in the way that came naturally to him.

The second pupil was no less ready than the first to look upwards to the Eternal Ideas which were the inspiration of so much living activity in the School of Plato. This pupil, too, could be completely transported from the earth. But the deep, warm-hearted interest in numbers of his fellow human beings — that he lacked. On the other hand he was intensely attracted by the myths and sagas of the ancient gods which were extant among the people and were well-known to him. He interested himself deeply in what we today call Greek Mythology, in the figures of Zeus, Athene and the rest. It was his tendency more or less to pass living human beings by, but he took a boundless interest in the gods whom he pictured as having lived on earth in a remote past and as being the progenitors of humanity.

And so he felt the urge and the strong desire to apply the inspiration experienced in his life of soul to an understanding of the profound wisdom contained in the sagas of the gods and heroes. Men's relation to such sagas was of course completely different in Greece from what it is today. In Greece it was all living reality, not merely the content of books or traditions.

This second personality who had been on terms of intimate friendship with the first, also grew out of the friendship — it was the same with them both. But as members of the Platonic School there was a link between them. Now the Platonic School had this characteristic. — Its pupils developed forces in themselves which tended to separate them from one another, to drive them apart after the School had for a time held them close together. As a result of this, individualities developed such as the two I have described, individualities who in spite of their different natures belonged together and who then grew apart.

These two individualities — they were born again as women in Italy in the days of the Renaissance — came again to the earth in modern times; the first too early and the second rather too late. This is connected with the strong resolution that is required before making the descent to incarnation.

Having passed through the gate of death, the one I described first, who had soared in spirit to over-earthly realms but without the fullness of human nature which expressed itself only in his heart and feelings, was able between death and rebirth to apprehend what pertains to the First Hierarchy, the Seraphim, Cherubim and Thrones; to some extent he could also apprehend the Second Hierarchy, but not the Hierarchy immediately above man, not, therefore, the Hierarchy through which one learns how the human body is built up and organised here on earth.

He thus became a personality who in pre-earthly existence had developed little insight into the constitution and nature of the human body; hence, when he was born again, he did not take into himself the final impulse. He made a partial, not a full descent into the body, did not come right down into it, but always hovered a little above it.

His friend from the Platonic School waited before descending to incarnation. The reason for the waiting was that had the two of them met, had they been actual contemporaries, they would not have been able to tolerate one another. And yet, for all that, the one who had been wont to speak at such length about his intercourse with people, recounting it with such charm and sweetness to the other — who did not go among his fellows but was engrossed in the myths and sagas of the gods — this first personality was destined to make a deep impression upon the other, to precede him. The second followed later.

This second personality, having steeped himself in Imaginations of the gods, had now developed a high degree of understanding of all that has to do with humanity. Accordingly he wanted to extend his time in the spiritual world and gather impulses that would enable him to take deep hold of the body. And what actually happened was that he took hold of the body too forcefully, he sank too deeply into it.

Thus we have here two differing configurations of destiny. Of two members of the Platonic School, one takes too slight a hold of the body in the second incarnation afterwards and the other takes too strong a hold. The one cannot completely enter his body; he is impelled into it in his youth but out of it again soon afterwards and is obliged to remain outside. This is Friedrich Hölderlin.

The other is carried so deeply into his body that he enters with too much force into his organs and suffers almost lifelong illness. This is Robert Hamerling.

Thus we have before us great human destinies stretching through the ages of time, and the impulses which gave rise to these destinies; and we are now able to divine how the spiritual impulses work. For we must place this fact in all clarity before our souls: an individuality like Hölderlin, who has come from the Platonic School and who cannot enter fully into his body but has to remain outside it, such an individuality experiences in the dimness of insanity, impulses that work in preparation for coming earthly lives, impulses that destine him for greatness. And it is the same with the other, Robert Hamerling.

Illness and health appear in quite a different light when considered in the setting of destiny than when they are observed within the bounds of the single earthly life.

I think it can surely be said that reverence will arise in men's hearts and minds when life is treated in this way — reverence and awe for the mysterious happenings brought about by the spiritual world. Again and again I must emphasise that these things are not being told in order to satisfy cravings for sensation, but to lead us more and more deeply into a knowledge and understanding of the spiritual life. And it is only through this deeper penetration into the spiritual life that the external, sense-life of man can be explained and illumined.

Thanks to The Rudolf Steiner Archive

Continued in the next issue of SCR.