Plant, Animal and the Human Being – Reading
“In various and complicated ways, we have already seen that the human being can only be understood within the context of the entire universe, out of the whole cosmos. Today we will consider this relationship of the human being to the cosmos from a rather simpler standpoint in order to bring the subject to a certain culmination in later lectures.
The most immediate part of the cosmos surrounding us is, to begin with, what appears to us as the physical world. But this physical world actually comes to meet us as the mineral kingdom, at least it confronts us only there in its intrinsic, primal form. Considering the mineral kingdom in the wider sense to include water, air, the phenomena of warmth and the warmth ether, we can study within the mineral kingdom the forces and the essential being of the physical world. This physical world manifests its workings, for instance, in gravity and in magnetic and chemical phenomena. In reality we can only study the physical world within the mineral kingdom. As soon as we come to the plant kingdom, the ideas and concepts we have formed for the physical world are no longer adequate. In modern times no one has felt this truth as intensely as Goethe. As a relatively young man he became acquainted with the plant world from a scientific point of view and sensed immediately that the plant world must be understood with a very different kind of thought and observation than is applicable to the physical world. He encountered the science of plants in the form developed by Linnaeus. This great Swedish naturalist developed botany by observing, above all, the external and minute forms to be found in the individual species and genera. Following these forms he evolved a system in which plants with similar structural characteristics are grouped into genera, so that the various genera and species stand next to each other in the same way as the objects of the mineral kingdom are organized. Goethe was repelled by this aspect of the Linnaean system, by this grouping of individual plant forms. This, said Goethe to himself, is how one observes the minerals and everything of a mineral nature. A different kind of perception must be used for plants. In the case of plants, said Goethe, one would have to proceed in the following way: Here, let us say, is a plant which develops roots, then a stem, then leaves on the stem, and so forth (drawing 1). But it does not always have to be that way. For example, Goethe said to himself, it could be like this (drawing 2):
Here is the root — but the force that in the first plant (drawing 1) began to develop right in the root is held back here (drawing 2), still enclosed in itself, and therefore does not develop a slender stem that immediately unfolds its leaves but a thick bulbous stem instead. In this way the forces of the leaves go into the thick stem structure and very little remains over to start new leaves or, with time, blossoms. Or again, it may be that a plant develops its roots very sparingly; some of the forces of the roots are left. Such a development would look like this (drawing 3):
Then there would be few stalk and leaf starts developing from the plant. All these examples are, however, inwardly the same. In one case the stem is slender and the leaves strongly developed (drawing 1); in another (drawing 2), the stem becomes bulbous and the leaves grow sparingly. The basic idea is the same in all the plants but the idea must be kept inwardly mobile in order to be able to move from one form to the other. Here I must create this form: weak stem, distinct leaves, concentrated leaf force (drawing 1). With the same idea I get a second form: concentrated root force (drawing 2). And again with the same idea I find another, a third form. And so I must create a flexible, mobile concept, through which the whole system of plants becomes a unity.
Whereas Linnaeus set the different forms side by side and observed them as he would observe mineral forms, Goethe, by means of mobile ideas, wanted to grasp the whole system of plant growth as a unity — so that he slipped out of one plant form, as it were, into another form by metamorphosing the idea itself. This kind of observation with mobile ideas was, in Goethe, doubtless the initial impulse toward an imaginative way of observing. Thus we may say that when Goethe approached the system of Linnaeus, he felt that the usual object-oriented way of knowing, although very useful when applied to the physical world of the mineral kingdom, was not adequate for the study of plant life. Confronted with the Linnaean system he felt the necessity for an imaginative means of observation.
In other words, Goethe said to himself: When I look at a plant it is not the physical that I see or, at any rate, that I should see; in a manner of speaking, the physical has become invisible, and I must grasp what I see with ideas very different from those applicable to the mineral kingdom. It is extraordinarily important for us to appreciate this distinction. If we see it in the right way we can say that in the mineral kingdom nature is outwardly visible all around us, while in the plant kingdom physical nature has become invisible. Of course, gravity and all the other forces of physical nature are still at work in the plant kingdom; but they have become invisible while a higher nature has become visible — a higher nature that is inwardly mobile all the time, inwardly alive. What is really visible in the plant is the etheric nature. And we are wrong if we say that the physical body of the plant is visible. The physical body of the plant has actually become invisible. What we see is the etheric form.
How then does the visible part of the plant really come into being? If you have a physical body, for instance, a quartz crystal, you can see the physical in an unmediated way. But with a plant you do not really see the physical, you see the etheric form. This etheric form is filled out with physical matter; physical substances live within it. When the plant loses its life and becomes carbon in the earth you see how the substance of physical carbon remains. It is contained in the plant. We can say, then, that the plant is filled out with the physical but dissolves the physical through the etheric. The etheric is what is actually visible in the plant form. The physical is invisible.
Thus the physical becomes visible for us in the mineral world. In the world of the plants the physical has already become invisible, for what we see is really the etheric made visible through the agency of the physical. We would not, of course, see the plants with our ordinary eyes if the invisible etheric body did not carry within it little granules (an overly simplified and crude expression, to be sure) of physical matter. Through the physical the etheric form becomes visible to us; but this etheric form is what we are really seeing. The physical is, so to speak, only the means whereby we see the etheric. So that the etheric form of a plant is an example of an Imagination, but of an Imagination that is not directly visible in the spiritual world but only becomes visible through physical substances.
If you were to ask, what is an Imagination? — We could answer that the plants are all Imaginations, but as Imaginations they are visible only to imaginative consciousness. That they are also visible to the physical eye is due to the fact that they are filled with physical particles whereby the etheric is rendered visible in a physical way to the physical eye. But if we want to speak correctly we should never say that in the plant we are seeing something physical. In the plants we are seeing genuine Imaginations. We have Imaginations all around us in the forms of the plant world.
But if we now ascend from the world of plants to that of animals, it is no longer sufficient for us to turn to the etheric. Here we must go a step further. In a sense we can say of the plant that it nullifies the physical and makes manifest the being of the etheric.
Plant: nullifies the physical and manifests the being of the etheric.
But when we ascend to the animal, we are not allowed to hold onto the etheric; we must imagine the animal form with the etheric now also nullified. Thus we can say that the animal nullifies the physical (the plant does this too) and also nullifies the etheric: the animal manifests that which can assert itself when the etheric is nullified. When the physical is nullified by the plant the etheric can assert itself. If then the etheric too, is only a filling, granules (again, a crude expression), then the astral, which is not within the world of ordinary space but works in ordinary space, can make its being manifest. Therefore we must say that in the animal the being of the astral is made manifest.
Animal: nullifies the physical, nullifies the etheric, and manifests the being of the astral.
Goethe strove with all his power to acquire mobile ideas, mobile concepts, in order to behold this fluctuating life in the world of the plants. In the plants the etheric is before us because the plant, as it were, drives the etheric out onto the surface. The etheric lives in the form of the plant. But in animals we must recognize the existence of something that is not driven to the surface. The very fact that a plant must remain at the place where it has grown shows that there is nothing in the plant that does not come to the surface and make itself visible. The animal moves about freely. There is something in the animal that does not come to the surface and become visible. This is the astral in the animal, something which cannot be grasped by merely making our ideas mobile, as I explained previously, by merely showing how we move from form to form in the idea itself. This does not suffice for the astral. If we want to understand the astral we must go further and say that something enters into the etheric and is then able, from within outward, to enlarge the form — for example, to make the form nodular or tuberous. In the plant you must always look outside for the cause of the variation in form, for the reasons why the form changes. You must be flexible with your idea. But the merely mobile is not enough to comprehend the animal. To comprehend the animal you have to bring something else into your concepts. If you want to understand how the conceptual activity appropriate for understanding animals must differ from that for plants, then you need more than a mobile concept capable of assuming different forms; the concept itself must receive something inwardly, must take into itself something that it does not contain of itself. This something could be called Inspiration in the forming of concepts. In the organic activity that takes place below our breathing we remain in the activity, so to speak, within ourselves. But when we breathe in, we receive the air from outside; so too if we would comprehend the animal we not only need to have mobile concepts but we must take into these mobile concepts something from the “outside.”
Let me explain the difference in another way. If we really want to understand the plant, then we can remain standing still, as it were; we can regard ourselves, even in thought, as stationary beings. And even if we were to remain stationary our whole life long we would still be able to make our concepts mobile enough to grasp the most varied forms in the plant world. But we could never form the idea, the concept of an animal, if we ourselves could not move about. We must be able to move around ourselves if we want to form the concept of an animal. And why?
When you transform the concept of a plant (drawing 1) into a second concept (drawing 2) then you yourself have transformed the concept. But if you then begin running, your concept becomes different through the very act of your running; you yourself must bring life into the concept. That infusion of life is what makes a merely imagined concept into an inspired concept. When it is a plant that is concerned, you can picture yourself inwardly at rest and merely changing the concepts. But if you want to think a true concept of an animal (most people do not like to do this at all because the concept must become inwardly alive; it wriggles within) then you must take the Inspiration, the inner liveliness, into yourself, it is not enough to externally weave sense perceptions from form to form. You cannot think an animal in its totality without taking this inner liveliness into the concept.
This conception of the animal was something which Goethe did not achieve. He did reach the point of being able to say that the plant world is a sum total of concepts, of Imaginations. But with the animals something has to be brought into the concept; with the animal we ourselves have to make the concept inwardly alive. In the case of a plant the Imagination is not itself actually living. This can be seen from the fact that as the plant stands in the ground and grows, its form changes only as the result of external stimuli, and not because of any inner activity. But the animal is, in a manner of speaking, the moving, living concept; with the animal we have to bring in Inspiration, and only through Inspiration can we penetrate to the astral.
When, finally, we ascend to the human being we have to say that he nullifies the physical, the etheric, and the astral and makes the being of the I manifest.
Humanity: nullifies the physical, nullifies the etheric, nullifies the astral, and manifests the being of the I.
With an animal we must say that what we see is really not the physical but a physically appearing Inspiration. This is the reason why, when the inspiration or breathing of a person is disturbed in some way it very easily assumes an animal form. Try sometime to remember some of the figures that appear in nightmares. Very many of them appear in animal forms. Animal forms are forms filled with Inspirations.
The human I we can only grasp through Intuition. Truly, in reality, the human I can only be grasped through Intuition. In the animal we see Inspiration; in the human being we actually see the I, the Intuition. We speak falsely when we say that we see the physical body of an animal. We do not see the physical body at all. It has been dissolved away, nullified, it merely makes the Inspiration visible to us; and the etheric body has likewise been dissolved away, nullified. With an animal we are actually seeing the astral body externally by means of the physical and the etheric. And with the human being we perceive the I or ego. What we actually see there before us is not the physical body, for it is invisible — and so too are the etheric body and the astral body. What we see in a human being is the I externally formed, formed in a physical way. And this is why people appear to visual, external perception in their flesh color — a color found nowhere else, just as the I is not found in any other being. Therefore, if we want to express ourselves correctly, we should say that we can only completely comprehend the human being when we think of him as consisting of physical body, etheric body, astral body, and the I. What we see before us is the I, while invisibly within are astral body, etheric body, and physical body.
Now, we really only comprehend the human being if we consider the matter a little more closely. What we see to begin with is merely the “outside” of the I. But the I is perceptible in its true form only inwardly, only through Intuition. But something of this I is also noticed by the human being in his ordinary, conscious life — that is, in his abstract thoughts which the animal does not have because it does not have an I. The animal does not have the ability to abstract thoughts because it does not have an I. Therefore, we can say that in the human form and figure we see externally the earthly incarnation of the I; and when we experience ourselves from within, in our abstract thoughts, there we have the I. But they are merely thoughts; they are pictures, not realities.
If now we consider the astral body, which is present although nullified, we come to the member that cannot be seen externally but that we can see if we look at a person in movement and out of their movements begin to understand their form. Here we need to practice the following kind of observation: Think of a small, dwarflike, thickset person who walks about on short legs. You will understand his movement if you observe his stout legs, which he thrusts forward like little pillars. A tall, lanky man with very long legs will move very differently. Observing in this way you will see unity between movement and form. You can train yourself to observe this unity in other aspects of human movement and form. For example, a man with a forehead sloping backward and a very prominent chin moves his head differently than someone with a receding chin and a strikingly projecting forehead. Everywhere you will see a connection between the form and movement of a human being if you simply observe him as he stands before you and get an impression of his flesh, of its color, and of how he holds himself when in repose. You are observing his I when you watch what passes over from his form into his movements and back again into his form.
Study the human hand sometime. How differently people with long or short fingers handle their tools. Movement passes over into form, form into movement. Here you are visualizing, as it were, a shadow of the astral body expressed through external, physical means. But, you see, as I am describing it to you now, it is a primitive inspiration. Most people do not think of observing people who walk about, as, for example, Fichte walked the streets of Jena. Anyone who saw Fichte walking through the streets of Jena could also have sensed the movement and the formative process which were in his speech organs and which came to expression particularly when he wanted his words to carry conviction although they were in his speech organs all the time. Inspiration, at least in an elementary form, is required in order to see this.”