PART III: Towards a New Cosmosophy
CHAPTER XIX The Country in which Man is not a Stranger
I question not my Corporeal or Vegetative Eye any more than I question a window concerning sight. I look through it and not with it. – William Blake
(a) INTRODUCTORY NOTE
A fundamental achievement along our path of study was the recognition that a force of levity exists, polar to that of gravity, and that these two together represent a primary polarity in nature which in turn is the source of nature’s manifold secondary polarities.
In the last part of these studies a vista opened up of an inner differentiation of levity itself into warmth, light, chemical action and the formative activity of life. Our next task will be to develop a clearer conception of these four modes of action of levity.
In undertaking this task, however, we shall have to extend our observations of nature beyond the frontier that can be reached by using only what we can learn from Goethe. It is here that Rudolf Steiner comes to our aid by what he was able to impart through his researches in the realm of the supersensible itself.
This turning to information given by another mind, whose sources of knowledge are beyond our own immediate reach, seems at first sight to be incompatible with the principles guiding all our studies hitherto; for in gaining insight into the How and Whence of a phenomenon of the sense-world we have up to now admitted only what is yielded by an observation of the phenomenon per se (though with the aid of the ‘eye of the spirit’) and of other phenomena related to it. This is what we have called ‘reading in the book of nature’, and we have found it to be the method on which a science aspiring to overcome the onlooker-picture of the universe must be based. So we must first make sure that the step we now propose to take does not violate this principle.
The assurance we want will be found in two characteristics of the communications made by Rudolf Steiner from his researches. The content of these communications was acquired by way of a ‘reading’ which is nothing but a higher metamorphosis of the reading first employed by Goethe; and the acceptance of this content by another mind is itself nothing but another act of reading, save that the direction of the reading gaze differs from the usual one.
In order to understand this we must go back to what we learnt in the course of our optical studies as to the two forms of vision arising from the activity of the eye’s inner light – the dream-vision and the seeing of after-images. Of these two, seeing in dream is in a certain sense the purer form of inner seeing in that it arises without any outer stimulus exercised upon the physical organ of sight. On the other hand, it lacks that objective conformity to law characteristic of the after-images which mirror the order of the external world. There is an arbitrary, enigmatic element in dream-pictures, and their logic often seems to run counter to that of waking consciousness. A further characteristic of dream-perception is that we are tied to the level of consciousness prevailing in the dream. While we are dreaming we cannot awaken to the extent of being able to make the pictures the object of conscious observation.
With the after-images it is different. Although to begin with they are present in our consciousness with a clarity no greater than that of the dream-pictures, nevertheless we are able so to enhance our consciousness of them as to bring them under observation like any external phenomenon. As previously shown, it is possible, even while the eye is riveted on an impression from outside, to develop such awareness in the activity of the inner light called forth by this impression, that together with the results of the deeds and sufferings of the light we can perceive something of these deeds and sufferings themselves. Perception of the after-images thus turns into what we may call perception of simultaneous images. (This activity of the eye corresponds with what Goethe, in a different connexion, called an ‘alliance of the eyes of spirit with the eyes of the body’.)
These two forms of visual perception – which we may briefly call: (1) perception of post-images, and (2) perception of co-images – represent successive rungs on a ‘spiritual ladder’ pointing beyond themselves to a further rung. By the logic of succession this may be expected to consist in some sort of seeing of pre-images, with the characteristic of being a still less physical mode of seeing than the two others. This seeing must be based on an activity of the inner light which will be similar to that in dream by its arising without any stimulus from external light-impressions, yet at the same time there must be no arbitrariness in the contents of this perception. Further, our consciousness in this perceptive activity must be such as to allow us to be in full control of it, as we are of ordinary day-waking seeing.
This kind of pure sense-free perception does indeed exist, and it can be aroused by means of a well-ordered training from the dormant state in which it is present in every human being. Anyone who learns to see in this way gains perception of the activity of cosmic light, contacting it directly with his own inner light – that is to say, without mediation of his corporeal eye which is subject to gravity. So this eye-of-the-spirit becomes capable of perceiving the levity-woven archetypes (ur-images), which underlie all that the physical eye discerns in the world of ordinary space.
In respect of the intrinsic character of the world-content thus perceived, Rudolf Steiner called this mode of perception, Imaginative perception, or, simply, Imagination. By so doing he invested this word with its due and rightful meaning.
From what we found in our optical studies concerning the nature of after-images (Chapter XV), it is clear that the acquisition of Imaginative perception rests on a re-awakening in the eye (and thus in the total organism behind the eye) of certain ‘infant’ forces which have grown dormant in the course of the growing up of the human being. It thus represents a fulfilment of Thomas Reid’s philosophic demand. Consequently we find among the descriptions which Traherne gives of the mode of perception peculiar to man when the inner light, brought into this world at birth, is not yet absorbed by the physical eye, many helpful characterizations of the nature of Imaginative perception, some of which may be quoted here.
Consider, in this respect, the following passage from Traherne’s poem The Praeparative, quoted earlier. In describing the state of soul at a time when the physical senses are not yet in operation, Traherne says:
‘Then was my Soul my only All to me,
A living, endless Ey, Whose Power, and Act, and Essence was to see:
I was an inward Sphere of Light Or an interminable Orb of Sight,
Exceeding that which makes the Days,
A vital sun that shed abroad its Rays:
All Life, all Sense,
A naked, simple, pure Intelligence.”
This is the condition of soul of which Traherne says in the same poem that through it a man is still a recipient of the ‘true Ideas of all things’. In this condition the object of sight is not the corporeal world which reflects the light, but light itself, engaged in the weaving of the archetypal images. In a later passage of the same poem Traherne expresses this by saying:
‘Tis not the Object, but the Light
That maketh Hev’n. …’
And more clearly still in the following part of his poem An Infant Eye:
‘A simple Light from all Contagion free,
A Beam that’s purely Spiritual, an Ey
That’s altogether Virgin, Things doth see
Ev’n like unto the Deity;
That is, it shineth in an hevenly Sense,
And round about (Unmov’d) its Light dispense.
‘The visiv Rays are Beams of Light indeed,
Refined, subtil, piercing, quick and pure;
And as they do the sprightly winds exceed,
Are worthy longer to endure;
They far out-shoot the Reach of Grosser Air,
With which such Excellence may not compare.
But being once debas’d, they soon becom
Less activ than they were before.’
How at this stage the soul experiences the act of perception in itself is shown in the following passage from the poem Wonder:
‘A Nativ Health and Innocence
Within my Bones did grow
And while my God did all his Glories show
I felt a vigour in my Sense
That was all SPIRIT: I within did flow
With seas of Life like Wine.’
Utterances of this kind illustrate the fact that perception of the ur-images of the world consists in a reading with the eye-of-the-spirit, which has been rendered so strong that for its action no support from the physical eye is any longer required. This faculty of spiritual Imagination (which Rudolf Steiner was able to exercise in advance of other human beings) is acquired on a path of training which is the direct continuation of the Goethean path.1
It remains to show that acceptance of information obtained through spiritual Imagination, without ourselves being as yet in actual command of it, is not in contradiction with the principles of ‘reading’. Let us, to this end, think of reading in the ordinary sense of this word, calling to mind that for the acquisition of this faculty we depend on someone who can teach it because he already has it. Exactly the same holds good for the reading with which we are here concerned. Here, too, a teacher already possessing this faculty is required. Thus Goethe became for us a teacher of reading, and it would be a mistake to imagine that he, for his part, needed no teacher. In his case this function was fulfilled partly by what he learned through his studies of the earlier fruits of man’s spiritual activity, that is, from an epoch when vestiges at least of the original, instinctive faculty of spiritual Imagination were still extant. A similar function on our own path of study was performed by our occupation with the old doctrine of the four elements and the basic concepts of alchemy.
Indispensable as is such a training in reading by turning to past conceptions of man, it does not suffice to meet the present-day demands of a scientific understanding of the universe. For this, we need a ‘technique’ of reading that cannot be attained along these lines alone. Awareness of this fact led Rudolf Steiner to pursue his spiritual-scientific investigations and to communicate the results in such a way that they can be a ‘school of reading’ for those who study them.2 In point of fact we have already made use in this sense of one of the results of Rudolf Steiner’s researches, for at the very beginning of this book his picture of the threefold psycho-physical organism of man was taken as the basis of our own investigations. The reason why the present remarks were not then included is that the relevant results of higher research were in that case of such a nature that, once known, they could be confirmed by the simplest kind of self-observation. The fact, however, remains that from the very beginning we have called upon one fully trained in reading, to help in deciphering certain facts of nature – in this case of human nature.
A similar need, though now in an amplified form, arises at the present stage of our studies. And here, out of the wealth of knowledge conveyed by Rudolf Steiner from the realm of supersensible Imagination, it is his characterization of the four modifications of levity which will now give the guidance necessary for our own observation. Adopting the terminology chosen by him for the description of this sphere, we shall in future speak of it as of the ‘Ether’ pervading the universe (thus using this word also in its true and original meaning). Accordingly, we shall refer to its fourfold differentiation as to the four kinds of ether: Warmth-Ether, Light-Ether, Chemical Ether and Life-Ether.
We begin with the warmth-ether as the only modification of ether which combines certain etheric with certain physical properties. Constituting as it does a border-condition between the two worlds, the warmth-ether has, on the one hand, the function of receiving the picture-weaving transmitted to it by the higher ethers, and, on the other, of bringing physical matter into the state where it becomes receptive to the working of the etheric forces. The warmth-ether achieves this by freeing matter from being controlled one-sidedly by the centre-bound forces of the earth. It thus calls forth, when acting physically, the processes of melting of solids and of evaporation of liquids: phenomena which yielded the initial observations for our introduction of the concept of levity. In processes of this kind we now recognize the physical manifestation of a universal function of the warmth-ether, namely, to divest matter of all form and to lead it over from the realm dominated by gravity into that of levity. Provided we attach the right meaning to the word, we may say that the function of the warmth-ether is to bring about chaos at the upper border of physical nature. It is thus that we have already found it working in the plant, when through the union of the pollen with the seed a state of chaos is produced within the seed, which enables the type to impress anew its form-principle into it.
Another instance of the warmth-ether’s anti-gravitational effect, also discussed earlier, is the earth’s seismic activity. True, it appears at first sight as if little were gained by speaking of warmth-ether, instead, as we did previously, of levity in general. But it must not be forgotten that in the ether-realm as a whole, warmth – that is, the overcoming of earthly gravity – is only one of the four modes of etheric action, albeit the one which enables the other three to work into the physical world. We shall see, later on, that only by taking into account the action of the higher modifications of the ether is it possible to gain insight into the true causes of the apparently so arbitrary occurrences of volcanic and kindred phenomena. Here, too, it is the function of the warmth-ether to produce in the physical sphere the chaos which is necessary to make the physical sphere receptive to the activities going on in higher spheres.
In view of this universal function of the warmth-ether, which distinguishes it from the other modifications of ether, we may give it as a second name that of ‘chaoticizing ether’.
* * *
The function of the light-ether, the second of the four modes of ether, can best be envisaged by thinking of the difference between a plant growing in darkness (perhaps a potato sprouting in a cellar) and another of the same species exposed to the influence of the light. On Plates VII and VIII two kinds of unicellular organisms are shown, of one which – the green algae – is accustomed to live in light, the other – the bacilli – in darkness. These things are, of course, well-known facts. Our purpose here, however, is not merely to record them as ‘fact’, but, by re-creating them within ourselves, to use them to gain an experience of the function of the light-ether.
The following passages from Goethe’s Metamorphosis of Plants are a classical example of observation of the activity of the light-ether in the plant. They are taken from the second part of the essay, where Goethe is describing leaf-development:
‘While the leaves owe their first nourishment principally to the more or less modified watery parts, which they draw from the stem, they are indebted for their increased perfection and refinement to the light and air. The cotyledons which are formed beneath the closed seed-sheath are charged, so to speak, with only a crude sap; they are scarcely and but rudely organized and quite undeveloped. In the same way the leaves are more rudely organized in plants which grow under water than in others which are exposed to the open air. Indeed, even the same species of plant develops smoother and less intricately formed leaves when growing in low damp places, whereas, if transplanted to a higher region, it will produce leaves which are rough, hairy and more delicately finished.’
‘So it is also with the anastomosis of the vessels which spring forth from the larger veins, seeking each other with their ends and coalescing, and thus providing the necessary basis for the leaf-skin or cuticle. All this, if not entirely caused by subtle forms of air, is at least very much furthered by them. If the leaves of many water-plants are thread-like or assume the form of antlers, we are inclined to attribute it to lack of complete anastomosis. The growth of the water buttercup, Ranunculus aquatilis, shows this quite obviously, with its aquatic leaves consisting of mere thread-like veins, while in the leaves developed above water the anastomosis is complete and a connected plane is formed. Occasionally, indeed, in this plant, the transition may be still more definitely observed, in leaves which are half anastomosed and half thread-like.’
The second of these paragraphs describes the phenomenon of vascular anastomosis which, having already been more than once an object of our study, here reveals a new meaning. If, following Goethe’s method, we re-create in our mind the repeated separations and reunions of the sap-vessels, while keeping in view the fact that the leaf’s outer form is the result of a purposive, many times repeated anastomosis, then the picture of the activity of weaving arises before our mind’s eye. (Hence the word ’tissue’ for the flesh of a living being.) In truth all nature’s forms are woven of light, including the crystals.3
How clear a picture Goethe had of the conformity of man’s act of thinking with nature’s way of producing her forms – both being an act of supersensible weaving – is shown by the following two verses. That on the left is a passage from Faust, from the scene in which Mephisto (disguised as Faust) instructs the young Scholar. The other is an altered version of it, written by Goethe at a later time to conclude an essay (Bedenken und Ergebung) in which he deals with the problem of the relation between Experience and Idea:
Truly, when men their thoughts conceive
‘Tis as if some masterpiece they weave.
One thread, and a thousand strands take flight,
Swift to and fro the shuttles going,
All unseen the threads a-flowing,
One stroke, and a thousand close unite.1
So with a modest eye perceive
Her masterpiece Dame Nature weave.
One thread, and a thousand strands take flight,
Swift to and fro the shuttles going,
Each to the other the threads a-flowing,
One stroke, and a thousand close unite.4 –
What Goethe wants to show here by applying to the activity of nature the same image which he used originally to depict the act of thinking, we can express to-day by saying that it is the identity of the activity of the light-ether in human thinking and in external nature which is responsible for the fact that the objective ideas operating in nature can become the content of man’s consciousness in the form of thoughts.5
Following our previous procedure when we gave the warmth-ether a second name by calling it chaoticizing ether, we can denote the light-ether also as ‘weaving ether’.
If at this point in our discussion we revert once more to the realm of physical manifestations of light, dealt with in the preceding chapters, we do so because by studying them in the present context we shall gain further insight into the fact that one plane of nature provides illustrations of processes which on another plane remain more or less veiled. At the same time this will help us to learn more about the properties of levity-space. The optical phenomenon which we shall discuss in this sense is that of the so-called pin-hole camera. (The pin-hole camera effect is easily produced by a keyhole in a closed door which on one side faces a window and on the other leads to a comparatively dark room.)
The usual explanation of the appearance of the optical image on the back inside wall of such a camera is that light-rays, emanating from every point outside, cross each other in the aperture of the camera and so – again point by point – create the inverted image. No such explanation, clearly, is open to us. For the world of external objects is a whole, and so is its image appearing in the camera. Equally, the light entering the camera is not a sum of single rays. Pure observation leads to the following description of the optical process.
By surveying the path which the light takes from the illuminated surface of the outer objects via the pin-hole to the optical image inside the camera, we realize that the light-realm engaged in this process has the shape of a double cone, with its apex in the opening of the camera. Within this cone the light carries the image across the space stretching in front of the light-reflecting objects up to the point where the image becomes visible by being caught on the back wall of the camera.
Thus in every section of the cone the image is present in its totality – even in the very apex of the cone. There, too, the image in all its details is present as a whole, though without (ideally) any spatial extension. Seen thus, on this level of its action the light-ether reveals as one of its characteristics the faculty of making present in a spaceless point an image originally expanded in space, and of letting it emerge from this point in spatial expansion.
Further, there is the fact that, wherever we set up a pin-hole camera, the aperture in its front will cause the formation of an optical image inside it. This shows that each point in space filled with light is the bearer of an optical image, contracted to a point, of the entire world of light-reflecting objects surrounding it. All we do with such a camera is to select a particular image and bring it to separate visibility.
Through these observations we grow aware of light’s faculty of communicating simultaneously to space as a whole, and to each point in it, a potential image of the light-reflecting object.
What we observe here in the sphere of physical light-activity is exactly what the light-ether performs on a higher level of nature when with its help the spiritual archetype of a plant takes on spatial appearance. For to this end the archetype, itself without spatial limitations, imprints its image into the tiny seed, whence the growing plant organism carries it again into space. And there is in principle no limitation to the number of such seeds, each of which will bear the complete image of the archetype.
* * *
The characteristics of the third modification of ether are such that they prompted Rudolf Steiner to give it as a second name, besides chemical ether, that of sound-ether. In view of the fact, stressed at the beginning of this chapter, that perception of the ether is achieved by a heightening of the power of the spirit-eye, it must cause surprise to learn that a certain mode of activity of the ether has a quality which makes appeal to aural experiences. The full answer to this riddle must await the discussion that follows this chapter. Two points, however, may be brought forward at once. Firstly, where gravity, with its tendency to individualize, is absent, no such sharp distinctions exist between one form of perception and another as are found in the sphere of the physical senses.6 Secondly, even in ordinary sense-perception a certain overlapping of visual and aural experiences is known to us. We need only think how common it is to give musical attributes, such as ‘consonant’ and ‘dissonant’ to colours, and to describe tones as ‘light’ and ‘dark’. The reason is that subconsciously we accompany visual experiences with tone-sensations, and vice versa. Cases are even known of human beings in whom the secondary sensation occurs with such intensity as to equal the primary one. Such people say that they ‘see’ sounds and ‘hear’ colours.
Everything that is true of the supersensible sphere we may expect to come to expression in some form in the world of sense-perception. The sphere of the ether is the sphere of the creative archetypes of the world, and when we learn that to one part of this world the character of sound is attributed, we must search for a phenomenon, perceptible to our senses, which reveals to us the secret of the sound’s form-creating power. This we have in the so-called sound-figures, discovered by the German physicist Chladni (1756-1827) and called after him ‘Chladni’s sound-figures’. A short description of how they are produced will not be out of place.
A round or square plate of glass or brass, fixed at its centre so that it can vibrate freely at its edges, is required. It is evenly and not too thickly covered with fine sand or lycopodium powder and then caused to vibrate acoustically by the repeated drawing of a violin-bow with some pressure across the edge of the plate until a steady note becomes audible. Through the vibrations thus caused within the plate, the particles of sand or powder are set in movement and caused to collect in certain stationary parts of the plate, thereby creating figures of very regular and often surprising form. By stroking the plate at different points on the edge, and at the same time damping the vibrations by touching the edge at other points with the finger, notes of different pitch can be produced, and for each of these notes a characteristic figure will appear (Fig. 14).7
The significance for us of Chladni’s experiment will emerge still more clearly if we modify it in the following way. Instead of directly setting the plate with the powder into vibration by stroking it with the bow, we produce a corresponding movement on a second plate and let it be transmitted to the other by resonance. For this purpose the two plates must be acoustically tuned to each other and placed not too far apart. Let us imagine, further, that the whole experiment was arranged – as it well might be – in such a way that the second plate was hidden from a spectator, who also lacked the faculty of hearing. This gives us a picture of the situation in which we find ourselves whenever the higher kinds of ether by way of a tone-activity inaudible to our physical ear, cause shapeless matter to assume regularly ordered form.
This comparison of the activity of the sound-ether, as the form-creating element in nature, with Chladni’s phenomenon is drawn correctly only if we recognize that the conception of form, as an expression of that which is called forth through the etheric forces in nature, comprises more than the external spatially bounded shape of an organic or inorganic entity. Apart from the fact already indicated, that for the formation of such entities the co-operation also of life-ether is necessary, we can judge the activity of sound-ether correctly only if we conceive it as a much more inward activity, compared with the formation in external space of Chladni’s figures. In the latter case, the reason why the influence of sound causes nothing beyond the ordering of form in outer space is because on this plane of nature the only changes that can occur are changes in the positions of separate physical bodies. Where the forces of sound in ether-form are able to take hold of matter from within, they can produce changes of form of a quite different kind. This effect of the activity of sound-ether has given it its other name: chemical ether.
We have mentioned once before that our conception of ‘form’ in organically active nature must not be limited merely to that of a body’s spatial outline. This was in connexion with Ruskin’s definition of the spiritual principle active in plant-formation as ‘the power that catches out of chaos charcoal, water, lime and what not, and fastens them down into a given form’. Besides the external order of matter revealed in space-form, there exists also an inner qualitative order expressed in a body’s chemical composition. Upon this inner chemical order is based all that we encounter as colour, smell, taste, etc., of a substance, as well as its nourishing, healing or harmful properties. Accordingly, all these parts of an organism, both in the plant-kingdom and within the higher organisms, have a certain inner material order, apart from their characteristic space-structure. The one is never present without the other, and in some way they are causally connected.
In this inner order of substance we must see in the very first place the work of the sound or chemical ether. And we should be aware that by the word ‘chemistry’ in this connexion we mean something much more far-reaching than those chemical reactions which we can bring about by the reciprocal affinity of physical substances, however complicated these reactions may be. A few examples will illustrate the difference between chemical processes caused by direct influence of the chemical ether, and others in which only the physical consequences of the ether are effective.
In his book, Man the Unknown, Professor Carrel shows very impressively, by an example from the human organism, the difference of quantitative ratio in externally similar processes, one of which occurs within the domain of life, the other, outside it. He compares the quantity of liquid necessary to keep artificially alive a piece of living tissue which has been reduced to pulp, with the quantity of blood doing the same within the living organism. If all the tissues of a human body were treated in this way, it would take 45,000 gallons of circulating fluid to keep them from being poisoned in a few days by their own waste products. Within the living organism the blood achieves the same task with 1-1/2 gallons.
Very many chemical changes within living organisms are effected by the two polar processes of oxidation and reduction. We have discussed them repeatedly as hieroglyphs of much that occurs in nature by way of polarity. In accordance with the principle ruling the physical plane of nature, that differences of level tend to disappear, oxidation can occur by itself, whereas reduction requires the expenditure of energy. Let us from this point of view compare the transformation of oxidized into reduced iron, as it takes place inside and outside the realm of life.
An example of this process in its purely physical form is the reduction of iron-ore to metallic iron in blast-furnaces, where, with the help of high temperature and high pressure, carbon is made to combine with the oxygen ingredient of the ore and to impart to it its own imponderable energy. Precisely the same process is going on continuously and unobtrusively within the human body under normal bodily conditions of temperature and pressure, when the oxy-haemoglobin of the arterial blood changes over into the haemoglobin of the venous blood. A macrotelluric counterpart of this is the transformation of the red river-mud into the blue-black continental mud at the bottom of the sea, around the continental shores. Here, again, reduction takes place without those preliminaries that are necessary for carrying through the process by technical means.
Through examples of this kind we gain insight into the nature of the chemical ether as a ‘magic’ force (in the sense in which we have introduced this term at the beginning of the book). What the chemical ether is capable of effecting in a gentle manner, so to speak, in cooperation with the inertness-overcoming power of the warmth-ether, can be imitated physically only by an extraordinary concentration of external energy and the use of masses of material substance. At the same time the imitation is never complete. For to all that happens through the action of the chemical ether there belongs the quality of cosmic youth, while everything brought about in a purely physical manner is of necessity cosmically old.8
Of all the provinces of nature towards which man’s exploring eye has turned since the dawn of the onlooker-consciousness, none has furthered his purely quantitative thinking more than chemistry, ever since the discovery that the chemical reactions of the various substances are conditioned by a quite definite and constant numerical relationship. It was these relationships which impelled the rise of the atomic conception of matter and all its consequences. For since the onlooker-consciousness is quite unable to conceive the existence of numerical relationships in the physical world except as sums of computable units in space, it was natural for this type of consciousness to reduce all empirically established numerical relationships to correspending relationships among quantities of the smallest possible material or matter-like units.
Scientific thinking, if guided by knowledge of the existence of etheric forces and their action, has no need of such an interpretation of the numerical relationships revealed in the physical world; for it knows them to be nothing but the last expression of the action of the chemical ether (hence occasionally also called ‘number-ether’ by Rudolf Steiner). To do justice to the appearance of measurable numerical relationships in nature, in whatever sphere, it is necessary to free ourselves from the abstract conception of number which governs modern scientific thought and to replace it by a more concrete one. We shall rind that for the existence of a certain number there may be two quite different reasons, although the method of establishing the number itself is the same in each case. A simple example will illustrate this.
Let us look at a number of similar objects, say a group of five apples. We observe that the relation of the number five to the group of objects in front of us is purely external and accidental. In applying to it the conception ‘five’ we combine the single objects into a group and give it a name, or numerical label, which has nothing to do with the nature of the items making up the group. This way of thinking, we may observe, is of exactly the kind which the nominalists of the Middle Ages attributed to every conception formed by the human mind. In fact, the process of counting is a process of pure abstraction. The more differentiated are the things which we want to combine into a group through the process of counting, the further this abstraction has to go. We can count apples and pears together under the collective conception of ‘fruit’; if turnips are added, we must help ourselves out with the conception ‘vegetable products’; until finally we deal only with ‘things’, without considering any qualitative differentiation. Thus the conception of number is created solely within the human mind, which applies it to things from outside.
From the moment when human consciousness was unable to attribute to itself any other than a purely nominalistic mode of comprehension it was inevitable that all explanations of natural phenomena would have two results: (1) the exclusion from observation of everything that could not be conceived in terms of numbers, and (2) an endeavour to find for every numerical relationship capable of empirical proof an explanation which could be interpreted as the result of taking qualitatively identical units and counting them. For this method of forming conceptions is the only one which nominalism can accept with a good conscience. The fact that in so doing it is led ad absurdum has only quite lately occurred to it. For if by the logical following of this path – as in modern theoretical physics – the whole universe is dissolved into units which can no longer be distinguished from each other, then it will become impossible to count these parts, for it cannot be established whether any given one of these hypothetical elemental particles has been counted or not. None the less, Eddington claimed to have found the exact number of particles composing the universe – a number with 80 figures – by using a special calculus, but this number is valid only on the supposition that the particles cannot be counted because they are indistinguishable!9
However correct the nominalistic conception of number may be in such a case as that of numbering the five apples, it is wholly incorrect to restrict the concept of number itself to one valid for this kind of occurrence. We shall see this immediately if we take one of the apples and cut it across. There we find the number five confronting us in the well-known star-like figure, represented by the fivefold pericarp in the centre of the apple. What man, restricted as he was to the mode of understanding, has completely overlooked is this: although the act of counting, by which we establish the number five, is the same in both cases, the quality of the number five is totally different. For in the case of the five pericarps this number is a quality immanent in the apple, which it shares with the whole species of Rosaceae. The apple itself is just as much ‘five’ as it is ’round’, ‘sweet’, etc. In the supersensible type which creates in the plant its own organ of manifestation, the creation of a number – in the apple the number five – is part of the form-creating activities characteristic of the type. The numerical relationships which appear between natural phenomena depend upon the way in which the chemical ether participates. This is true equally of those discovered by chemistry in the sphere of inorganic matter and used to-day with such great success.
Let us be quite clear that the relationship of unity to plurality in the case of the five apples is totally different from what it is in the fivefold pericarp. In the first case unity is the smallest quantity represented by each of the five apples. There, the step from one to two is made by joining together two units from outside. The path from one to many is by way of continuous addition. In the second case the unity is represented by the pericarp – i.e. by the one comprising the many, the latter appearing as parts of the whole. In such a case two is part of one and so are three, four, five, etc. Plurality arises from a continuous process of division of unity.
The ancient world knew the idea of number only in the last-mentioned form. There unity appeared as an all-embracing magnitude, revealed through the Universe. The world’s manifoldness was felt to be not a juxtaposition of single things, externally connected, but the content of this unity, and therefore derived from it. This was expressed by the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers in the formula ÎÎ½ ÎºÎ±Î¹ ÏÎ±Î½ (the One and the All).
With the appearance of the Arabs on the scene of history, human thought turned to the additive concept of number, and the original distributive concept receded gradually into oblivion. The acceptance of the new concept made it possible for the first time to conceive the zero. It is clear that by a continuous division of unity one is carried to a constantly growing number of constantly diminishing parts, but without ever reaching the nothing represented by the number zero. To-day we should say that in this way we can reach zero only by an infinite series of steps. Yet the idea of the infinite did not exist in this form for ancient man. On the other hand, in the arabic conception of number the steps necessary to reach zero are finite. For just as by the external addition of unities we can step forward from one number to the next, so we can also step back on the same path by repeated subtractions of unities. Having thus reached One, nothing can stop us from going beyond it by one more such step. The arabic numeral system, therefore, is the only one to possess its own symbol for zero.
It has been correctly noted that the penetration into European thought of this additive concept of number was responsible for developing the idea of the machine; for it accustomed human beings to think calmly of zero as a quantity existing side by side with the others. In ancient man the idea of nothingness, the absolute void, created fear; he judged nature’s relation to the void accordingly, as the phrase ‘natura abhorret vacuum’ indicates. His capacity to think fearlessly of this vacuum and to handle it thus had to be developed in order to bring about the Machine Age, and particularly the development of efficient steam engines. Consider also the decisive part played by the vacuum in Crookes’s researches, through which the path to the sub-physical realm of nature was laid open.
Yet nature makes use of number as a regulating factor in quite a different way from its appearance in the purely electrical and gravitational connexions of inorganic matter, namely where sound-ether from the upper boundary of nature so regulates nature’s dynamic that the manifold sense-qualities appear in their time-and-space order. When we interpret the arrangement of numbers found there on a nominalistic basis, as is done when the axis- and angle-relationships of crystals are reduced to a mere propinquity of the atoms distributed like a grid in space, or when the difference in angle of the position of the various colours in the spectrum is reduced to mere differences in frequency of the electromagnetic oscillations in a hypothetical ether – then we bar the way to the comprehension not only of number itself, as a quality among qualities, but also of all other qualities in nature.
As already mentioned, the three kinds of ether, warmth, light and sound, are not sufficient in themselves to bring into existence what in its proper sense we call ‘life’ in nature, i.e. the formation of single living organisms. This requires the action of a fourth kind of ether, the life-ether, ranged above the other three. We can best comprehend the life-ether’s contribution to the total activity of the ether in nature by considering the interaction of the four kinds of ether with the four physical elements.
We have seen that the warmth-ether has the double function of being at once the lowest ether and the highest physical element, thus acting as a sphere of reflexion for the other kinds of ether and the elements respectively. Each stage in the etheric has its reflexion in the physical, as the above table shows. Thus to the physical air the etheric light is related. (The affinity of light and air is best seen in the plant and its leaf-formation.) To bring about real changes in the material composition of the physical world requires the stronger powers of the chemical ether. Therefore it is also the first ether of which we had to speak as ‘magical’ ether. Its effects reach into the watery element which is already bound up with gravity, but by its own strength it cannot penetrate beyond that. The causation of material changes in the liquid sphere would in fact be all that these three kinds of ether could achieve together.
Only when the power of the life-ether is added to the three others can etheric action reach as far as the sphere of solid matter. Thus the life-ether is responsible for all solid formation in nature, both in her organic and inorganic fields (the latter-crystal-formation-being the effect of external ether-action).10 It is to the action of the life-ether that nature owes the existence in her different realms of multitudes of separate solid forms. To mention an instance from our previous studies: in the same way as volcanic phenomena manifest the warmth-ether’s gravity-overcoming power on a macrotelluric scale, so snow-formation illustrates the life-ether’s matter-shaping might.
Through its power to bind flowing action into solid form, the life-ether is related to the sound-ether in the same way as the articulated word formed by human speaking is related to the mere musical tone. The latter by itself is as it were fluid. In human speech this fluidity is represented by the vowels. With a language consisting only of vowels man would be able to express feelings, but not thoughts. To let the word as carrier of thought arise out of sound, human speech possesses the consonants, which represent the solid element in it.
The emergence of the sense-bearing word from the merely ringing sound is an exact counterpart to what takes place in nature when the play of organic liquids, regulated by the chemical ether, is caused by the life-ether to solidify into outwardly perceptible form. By reading in this way the special function of the life-ether among the other three, we are led to the term ‘ Word-ether’ as an appropriate second name for it, corresponding to the term sound-ether for the chemical ether.
Thus Levity presents itself to us as being engaged in the fourfold activity of Chaoticizing, Weaving, Sounding and, lastly, Speaking the form-creative Cosmic Word into the realm of Gravity.
1 To avoid misunderstandings, it should be emphasized that spiritual Imagination is not attained by any exercise involving directly the sense of sight and its organ, the eye, but by purely mental exercises designed to increase the ‘seeing’ faculty of the mind.
2 Indeed, it is a misunderstanding of the whole meaning of Anthroposophy when its contents are quoted – as they sometimes are even by adherents – in such a way as to suggest that by their help a better ‘explanation’ may be gained of matters for which there is otherwise no, or at least no satisfactory, explanation. The question: ‘How does Anthroposophy explain this or that?’ is quite wrongly put. We ought rather to ask: ‘How does Anthroposophy help us to read more clearly this or that otherwise enigmatical chapter of the script of existence?’
3 See Space and the Light of Creation, by G. Adams, where this ‘weaving’ is shown with the help of projective geometry.
4 Translation by J. Darrell.
5 We may recall here also the passage from Ruskin’s The Queen of the Air, quoted earlier, p. 118).
6 That the ether, apart from being supersensibly seen, is also heard, was empirically known to Goethe. See the opening words of the ‘Prologue in Heaven” (Faust, I) and the call of the Spirit of the Elements in the first scene of the Second Part of the drama, which follow upon the stage direction: ‘The sun announces his approach with overwhelming noise.’
7 By attending Chladni’s lectures on his discovery in Paris the French physicist Savart became acquainted with this phenomenon and devoted himself to its study. Chladni and Savart together published a great number of these figures.
8 Understanding the attributes of the chemical ether enables us to see in their right perspective Rudolf Steiner’s suggestions to farmers for the preparation of the soil and for keeping healthy the crops growing on it. Attempts have been made to dismiss these suggestions by calling them ‘mysticism’ and ‘mediaeval magic’. Both terms are titles of honour if we understand by the one the form of insight into the supersensible realm of nature acquired by the higher mode of reading, and by the other a faculty of nature herself, whose magic wand is the chemical or sound-ether.
9 See Eddington’s humorous and at the same time serious treatment of this problem in his Philosophy of Physical Science.
10 Of the difference between external and internal ether-action more will be said in the concluding chapter.
- CHAPTER XVIII – The Spectrum as a Script of the Spirit
- CHAPTER XX – Pro Anima