The Evolutionary Stages of the Earth and Biodynamics
Rudolf Steiner’s cosmology as a key to understanding the Agriculture Course.
Peter Stewart, January 2020
Participants of the Koberwitz conference, where the lectures of the Agriculture Course (CW327)[i] occurred, were already deeply familiar with the worldview of Anthroposophy. They brought the content of anthroposophy as previously given by Rudolf Steiner to their reception and understanding of the content of the Agriculture Course. In particular, Rudolf Steiner had recommended his fundamental cosmological work An Outline of Occult Science (CW13)[ii] as preparatory reading for understanding what would be given in the Agricultural Course.[iii] Though he does not explicitly refer to the content of Occult Science in the Agriculture Course, the ideas contained in his cosmology form a key foundation for understanding many of the indications and connections given, ever so briefly, in the course. The purpose of this article is to look at some of these key cosmological ideas and how they illuminate the content of the Agriculture Course.
Anthroposophical Cosmology – The evolutionary stages of the Earth
Anthroposophy sees the earth and all its creatures as the creative work of divine spiritual beings. The whole of creation, which includes the earth, the human being, the kingdoms of nature, and our planetary system, has evolved and become differentiated through the work of these spiritual beings over long periods of time through four distinct evolutionary stages. These developmental stages, which are described in Steiner’s fundamental cosmological text Occult Science, are referred to by the names Old Saturn, Old Sun, Old Moon and the current earth stage. It was a topic which Rudolf Steiner often spoke about over the course of his life’s work from ever new perspectives, as each prior evolutionary stage was as complex and multifaceted as our current earth stage.
Readers are of course advised to read Occult Science, particularly the fourth chapter “Cosmic Evolution and the Human Being”, but a brief overview of some of the key characteristics of each evolutionary stage will be provided here.
Rudolf Steiner describes the initial stage of creation, Old Saturn, as a body of differentiated living warmth, through which weaved and worked myriads of spiritual beings. In it were created the seeds of the human physical body. The seeds of the human physical body, though consisting only of warmth, existed in a kind of mineral-like state, they had a kind of mineral-mechanical relation to the world and beings around them. They had no life or soul of their own, but could only reflect the life, soul life and spirit of the beings around them.
During the second stage of evolution, Old Sun, the initial state of warmth, which characterised Old Saturn, condensed to air on the one hand, and rarefied to light ether on the other. The primary evolutionary step of Old Sun was that spiritual beings worked to integrate an independent etheric body or body of life-forces into the physical body of the human being. In this way the human being attained a kind of plant-like existence in relation to the beings and world around them. Soul life and spirit was still only a reflection of the soul life and spirit of the creative spiritual beings around them. The plants of today, which are organisms which have only a physical and etheric body, are an image or memory of this stage of evolution.
On Old Moon, the air state further densified to water or fluid, and the light ether rarefied to tone ether. As yet there was still nothing solid. Over the period of the Old Moon evolution an astral body was integrated into the human being. As a result, in addition to form and life, the gifts of Old Saturn and Old Sun respectively, human beings began to have an independent inner soul life of sensations, pleasure and displeasure. With the incorporation of an astral body the human being attained a kind of animal-like state of existence.
During our current evolutionary stage, our current earth, the solid element condensed from the fluid conditions present on Old Moon, and life ether arose. The purpose of the earth stage of evolution is to gradually incorporate an independent ego or I into the human being. At this stage of evolution it is possible to speak of the human being as a four-fold being composed of a physical body, etheric body, astral body and I – a being who incorporates independent form, life, soul and spirit. This is the new step in creation. We exist in a world of warmth, air, water and earth, surrounded by the mineral, plant and animal kingdoms, which represent a kind of image or memory of previous evolutionary stages. This is why it was possible for Rudolf Steiner to write in the sixth chapter of Occult Science, “It is impossible to understand the Earth evolution, in the sense of Spiritual Science, if one does not observe the facts of the preceding evolutionary cycles. For the facts of the Moon, Sun and Saturn evolutions are contained in a certain sense within the conditions that confront the human being at present within the sphere of the earth.”[iv]
The Relationship between the Root, the Head and Old Saturn
To see how an understanding of Rudolf Steiner’s cosmology can aid us, let us begin with a sentence from Lecture 2 of the Agriculture Course, where Rudolf Steiner briefly mentions that “everything happening below ground has an effect on plant growth that is similar to the effect that our head has on our body – most notably during childhood.”[v] This statement is made in the context of a discussion on the organisation of the individuality of the farm organism, where everything corresponding to its belly-metabolic system is above ground, while its head-nerve sense system is below ground.
On 3 September 1919, in lecture 12 of The Study of Man (CW293)[vi], Rudolf Steiner spoke about the effects of the head on the child’s organism, saying “it is continually forming, shaping. Our life really consists in this, that in the first seven years an intense forming force streams from the head right down into the physical form.”, and later on 24 July 1924, in lecture 9 of The Healing Process (CW319)[vii], Rudolf Steiner says “When we study human growth and development beginning with childhood, we discover that the head, as the part of the organism whose entire structure demonstrates its ossifying tendencies, constantly radiates forces that shape the skeleton and exert a hardening or stiffening effect on the entire human constitution”. We can relate these statements to similar statements Rudolf Steiner makes in Lecture 2 of the Agriculture Course that it is the cosmic form-giving forces which work upwards from the soil around the root into the plant.
But it is in lecture 5 of the Course for Young Doctors, on 6 January 1924 (CW316)[viii], where Steiner makes a connection between the nature of the root, the head and the evolutionary stage of Old Saturn:
“Think of it, my dear friends — the root, sinking into the soil, represents the end of the plant existence in the direction of the solid earth. But this root could receive nothing from the soil if the soil of the earth had not first come under the influence of the cosmic environment. The cosmic environment, not only the warmth and light of the sun but also those forces which proceed from the rest of the planetary system belonging to the earth, influence the earth from the surface a little way inwards. And the forces that are quickened in this way in the earth’s substances make it possible for the root to be within the earth.
Now in the human head we find the same forces that play around the roots of plants, but in the human head we find them in quite a different form from that in which they exist around the roots of plants in the soil….We know that as human beings we experience warmth. Now what is, for the plant, the earth — the earthy element is, for the human head, warmth.
Suppose you have here the earth, and ‘think away’ from it what appears to you as the earthy element; also think away the fluid and the airy, but let the warmth remain, so that you have a kind of ‘soil’ of warmth. You can picture this quite easily. Now take the whole thing and turn it round, so that what was formerly below is now above — it is a polar opposite.
You can now say: I behold the root of the plant, it is within the earthy soil; I behold the human head, it is in the ‘warmth’ soil, but the soil is in the reverse position. That is because what happens here lies four stages further back than this. If you speak of what goes on in the plant root as an earth happening, you must speak of what goes on in the human head, out of the warmth, as a Saturn happening. Between them are Sun and Moon happenings. And now ‘think away’ from the human head everything that came into it at later stages. Think away the earthy, the watery, the airy, and picture merely the warmth working in the human head, the warmth that provides the rest of the organism with differentiated warmth — and then you have the human head as it is today, a miniature Saturn. In the human head today you have the old Saturn organization. And if you understand the connection, then you say to yourselves: In the cosmos, untold millennia ago, there was a structure that anticipated everything that exists today as warmth in the human head. And the plant root in the earthy element today creates an image of the condition that thus preceded it.
There you have a connection. You behold ancient Saturn in the warmth organization of the human head. But if this act of beholding is to be true, it must be connected not merely with theoretical ideas but with inner, moral impulses. Looking at the human head must be an experience that moves us inwardly; we feel that the human head is the living, embodied remembrance of a very ancient evolutionary period of the cosmos, of the old Saturn period…. I look at the root nature of the plant, I acquire the capacity to relate this root nature to the human head, and the human head leads me back to the time of Old Saturn.”
He concludes this discussion with the words “For just as the Old Saturn existence can arise within you when you study the connection between the human head and the root of a plant, so too can the Old Sun existence arise within you when you study the connection between the human heart and the development of the stem and leaves of a plant. The stem and leaf development in the plant is, again, a remembrance that has now become living, of the Old Sun existence. The flower in which the seed is produced is connected with the human metabolic system, the limb-metabolic system. And when we study what goes on in the flower in connection with the metabolic or limb system in man, a remembrance of the Old Moon period arises.”
There is a wonderful illustration in Lecture 1 of Anthroposophical Spiritual Science and Medical Therapy, 11 April 1921 (CW313)[ix], of the threefold human being of head, chest and metabolic systems in relation to the fourfold human being of physical body, etheric body, astral body and ego, which can make these relationships found by the spiritual researcher between the organisation of the human being and the plant, and the previous stages of the earth’s evolution more comprehensible. For each centre in the three-fold system, Steiner distinguishes between those members of the four-fold human being which are primarily active and those which work only as an imprint – thus in a certain sense, one could say from outside. The illustration represents the head system at the top, the chest system in the middle, and metabolic system at the bottom.
In that lecture Rudolf Steiner describes it thus, “You see, then, that the different members of the human being interact in different ways. Corresponding to the various physical members that we can call “head system,” “chest system,” and “limb system,” there are different interactions of the members that spiritual science calls physical body, etheric body, astral body, and ego. The human head, regarded as a process, is essentially physical body, for what is not physical body there is an imprint of the ego, astral body, and etheric body. The middle realm of the human being is essentially a cooperation between physical body and etheric body, for what is not physical body and etheric body is an imprint of the ego and astral body. And the metabolic-limb man is entirely an interplay of physical, etheric, and astral bodies and an imprint only of the ego.”[x]
The diagram above expresses these relationships more schematically. A bold line represents an active member, a lighter line, one which is working only as an imprint or reflection.
If we have absorbed the ideas of Rudolf Steiner’s cosmology we can see in the diagram above a picture of the three evolutionary stages of Old Saturn, Old Sun and Old Moon.
The head-nerve sense system is an image of the human being’s state of existence on Old Saturn, a mineral-like state where the physical is primarily active, but life, soul life and spirit are only an imprint or reflection of the activities of the higher principles. In the chest-rhythmic system there is an image of the plant-like state human beings attained on Old Sun, of an incorporated physical and etheric bodies, but with only an imprint or reflection of the higher principles of the astral body and ego. In the metabolic system we have an image of Old Moon, where the astral, etheric and physical are incorporated and active, an animal-like state, with the ego acting only as an imprint.
Rudolf Steiner makes these connections quite clear in lecture 10 of Man as Symphony of the Creative Word, 9 November 1923 (CW230)[xi], “if you look at all the metabolic functions within the physical body, here you have a picture of what man owes to the Moon-evolution. And you have a picture of what man owes to the old Sun-evolution when you look into everything within him which involves some kind of rhythmic process. Breathing and blood-circulation are of course the most important of these rhythmic processes, and these man owes to the old Sun-evolution. Everything comprised in the system of nerves and senses, which in men of today is distributed over the whole body, this man owes to the old Saturn-evolution.”
The Plant between Animalisation and Mineralisation
This picture showing the relationship of the three-fold being of head, chest and belly, with the four-fold members of physical body, etheric body, astral body and ego, can help us to understand the nature of the plant as Rudolf Steiner presents it in the Agriculture Course and the medical lectures.
In lecture 18 of Spiritual Science and Medicine, 7 April 1920 (CW312)[xii], when speaking of the cosmic forces working on the plant from outside the earth, Rudolf Steiner says “should these cosmic forces attain their full expression and take full possession of the plant, and should the planets not ensure that these forces can withdraw again, then the plant in its growth from the stalk to the blossom and seed would have the perpetual tendency to become animal. There is a tendency towards animalisation. But this tendency, which expresses cosmic forces passing into the plant, is counteracted and balanced by the opposite tendency towards suppression of the plant-nature in mineralisation. I would thus emphasise the essential nature of plants: it holds the balance between the tendency to salification, to the deposit of mineral constituents within the vegetable substance, i.e., to mineralisation; and on the other hand to self-ignition, to animalisation. This is what is perpetually at work in external nature.”
In lecture 7 of the Agriculture Course, 15 June 1924 (CW327), when Rudolf Steiner describes the nature of the tree, he refers to the same phenomenon, but using slightly different terminology, “You see, the tree makes the spiritual atmosphere around itself richer in astrality. What happens, then, when something resembling a herbaceous plant grows up there in the tree? The tree has a certain inner vitality or “ethericity”, a certain inner intensity of life; but the cambium acts to damp down this vitality to a more mineral level. In other words, while a rich astrality comes about outside the tree, the effect of the cambium is to bring about a poverty of ether on the inside. In comparison to herbaceous plants, trees are inwardly poorer in ether…. This poverty in turn influences the tree’s roots, which become much more mineralised than the roots of herbaceous plants.”
Reading these two quotations together we would say that the purely plant-like state is one of living form, which incorporates a physical body and an etheric body – in evolutionary terms, it is an image of the Old Sun state. In the middle realm of growing leaves and stems, the plant is truly plant. When at the flowering pole of the plant, the plant starts to develop a relationship to the astral forces hovering around it, it then tends towards an animalised state, a more Old Moon-like state, when an astral body was incorporated. At the root pole, where the plant becomes more lifeless and releases the etheric, it tends towards a more mineral-like condition, a more Old Saturn-like state in the organisation of the physical, etheric, astral and ego forces. As previously quoted from the fifth lecture of the Course for Young Doctors, “For just as the Old Saturn existence can arise within you when you study the connection between the human head and the root of a plant, so too can the Old Sun existence arise within you when you study the connection between the human heart and the development of the stem and leaves of a plant. The stem and leaf development in the plant is, again, a remembrance that has now become living, of the Old Sun existence. The flower in which the seed is produced is connected with the human metabolic system, the limb-metabolic system. And when we study what goes on in the flower in connection with the metabolic or limb system in man, a remembrance of the Old Moon period arises.”
These underlying ideas connecting the organisation of the human being and the organisation of the plant to the evolutionary stages of the earth, form the basis for many of the indications in the Agriculture Course – why it is that the flowering parts of plants are encased in the metabolic organs of animals, while bark as a further expression of the root’s hardening tendency is encased in a skull. Or why in Lecture 8 of the Agriculture Course, Steiner indicates that root vegetables as fodder will provide the right nutritional forces for the head of the animal.
In conclusion, it should now be clear that it is very
worthwhile wrestling with Rudolf Steiner’s cosmological pictures, as they offer
much to aid our understanding of the Agriculture Course. The developmental
processes of the evolutionary stages of the earth are reflected in the organization
of the various kingdoms of nature around us, their relationship to our own
organization, and even to the organization of what Rudolf Steiner describes as
the individuality of the farm organism. We can take heart that Rudolf Steiner
believed that “a farmer, at any rate, would easily comprehend the Saturn, Sun,
and Moon periods of evolution”[xiii]
presumably because the farmer’s work is so deeply embedded in the experience of
the realms of Nature and is so closely connected with the experience of the
cycles of growth and development of plant and animal life.
[i] Steiner, R. Spiritual Foundations for the Renewal of Agriculture Course, Bio-Dynamic Farming and Gardening Association Inc., 1993 (commonly referred to as the Agriculture Course).
[ii] Steiner, R. Occult Science – An Outline, Rudolf Steiner Press, 1969
[iii] Selg, P. The Agriculture Course Koeberwitz, Whitsun 1924, Temple Lodge, 2010
[iv] Steiner, R. An Outline of Occult Science, Anthroposophic Press, 1997
[v] Steiner, R. Spiritual Foundations for the Renewal of Agriculture Course, Bio-Dynamic Farming and Gardening Association Inc., 1993, p29.
[vi] Steiner, R. The Study of Man, Rudolf Steiner Press, 1966
[vii] Steiner, R. The Healing Process, SteinerBooks, 1999
[viii] Steiner R. Course for Young Doctors, Mercury Press, 1997.
[ix] Steiner, R. Anthroposophical Spiritual Science and Medical Therapy, Mercury Press, 2008. See p7.
[x] Ibid. p7,
[xi] Steiner, R. Man as Symphony of the Creative Word, Rudolf Steiner Press, 1991.
[xii] Steiner, R. Spiritual Science and Medicine, Rudolf Steiner Press, 1948.
[xiii] Steiner, R. Esoteric Lessons 1913 – 1923, SteinerBooks, 2011. See Record A, 24 January 1914.