CHAPTER XVIII – The Spectrum as a Script of the Spirit

PART II: Goetheanism – Whence and Whither?

CHAPTER XVIII       The Spectrum as a Script of the Spirit

The realization that Newton’s explanation of the spectrum fails to meet the facts prompted Goethe to engage in all those studies which made him the founder of a modern optics based on intuitive participation in the phenomena. In spite of all that he achieved, however, he never reached a real solution of the riddle of the colour-phenomenon produced when light passes through a transparent body of prismatic shape. For his assumption of certain ‘double images’, which are supposed to appear as a result of the optical displacement of the boundaries between the Light-filled and the Dark-filled parts of space and the mutual superposition of which he believed to be responsible for the appearance of the respective colours, does not solve the problem.1

What hindered Goethe in this field was his limited insight into the nature of the two distinct kinds of forces which, as we have noted in the course of our own inquiries, correspond to his concepts of Licht and Finsternis.

With the aid of this distinction – which we have indeed established through a consistent application of Goethe’s method – we shall now be able to develop precisely that insight into the coming-into-being of the spectral colours which Goethe sought.2


Dynamically, the process of the formation of the spectrum by light that passes through a prism divides into two clearly distinguishable parts. The first consists in the influence which the light undergoes inside the prism as a result of the latter’s special shape, the other, in what happens outside the prism at the boundary between the Light-space – influenced by the shape of the prism – and the surrounding Dark-space. Accordingly, we shall study these two parts of the process separately.

As an aid to distinguishing clearly one process from the other, we shall suppose the prism experiment to be so arranged that the light area is larger than the width of the prism, which will then lie completely within it. We shall further suppose the dimensions of the whole to be such that the part observable on the screen represents only a portion of the total light-realm situated between the boundaries of the prism. The result is that the screen depicts a light-phenomenon in which there is no trace of colour. For normal eyesight, the phenomenon on the screen differs in no way from what it would be if no prism intervened in the path of the light.

These two seemingly identical light-phenomena reveal at once their inner dynamic difference if we narrow the field of light from either side by introducing into it an object capable of casting shadow. If there is no prism we see simply a black shadow move into the illumined area on the screen, no matter from which side the narrowing comes. If, however, the light has come through a prism (arranged as described above) certain colours appear on the boundary between the regions of light and shadow, and these differ according to the side from which the darkening is effected. The same part of the light area may thus be made to display either the colours of the blue pole of the colour-scale, or those of the yellow pole. This shows that the inner dynamic condition of the light-realm is altered in some way by being exposed to an optically resistant medium of prismatic shape. If we are to find the cause and nature of this alteration we must revert to the prism itself, and inquire what effect it has on light in the part of space occupied by it. By proceeding in this way we follow Goethe’s model: first, to keep the two border-phenomena separate, and, secondly, not to ascribe to the light itself what is in fact due to certain boundary conditions.

In order to realize what happens to the light in passing through the prism, let us remember that it is a characteristic of an ordinary light-beam to direct itself through space in a straight line if not interfered with, and to illuminate equally any cross-section of the area it fills. Both these features are altered when the light is exposed to a transparent medium of prismatic shape – that is, to an optically resistant medium so shaped that the length of the light’s passage through it changes from one side of the beam to the other, being least at the so-called refracting edge of the prism, greatest at the base opposite to that. The dimming effect of the medium, therefore, has a different magnitude at each point of the width of the beam. Obviously, the ratio between levity and gravity inside such a light-realm, instead of being constant, varies from one side to the other. The result is a transverse dynamic impulse which acts from that part of the light-realm where the weakening influence of the prism is least towards the part where it is strongest (see long arrow in Plate C, Fig. i).3 This impulse manifests in the deflection of the light from its original course. Apart from this, nothing is noticeable in the light itself when caught by an observation screen, the reason being that the transverse impulse now immanent in the light-realm has no effect on the reflecting surface.

The situation changes when the light-realm is narrowed down from one side or the other – in other words, when an abrupt change of the field-conditions, that is, a sudden leap from light to dark or from dark to light, is introduced within this realm. In this case, clearly, the effect of the transverse field-gradient on such a leap will be different, depending on the relation between the directions of the two (see small arrows in Fig. i). Our eyes witness to this difference by seeing the colours of the blue pole of the colour-scale appear when the field-gradient is directed towards the leap (a), and the colours of the yellow pole when the gradient is directed away from it (b).

For our further investigation it is very important to observe how the colours spread when they emerge at the edge of the shadow-casting object thus introduced into the light-realm from the one side or the other. Figs, ii and iii on Plate C show, closely enough for our purpose, the position of the colour-bearing areas in each case, with the dotted line indicating the direction which the light would have at the place of origin of the colours if there were no object interfering with its free expansion.4 We observe a distinct difference in the widening out of the two colour-areas on both sides of the original direction of the light: in each case the angle which the boundary of the colour-area forms with this direction is smaller on the side of the colours nearest the light-realm (blue and yellow respectively) than on the opposite side (violet and red).

Remembering what we have learnt about the dynamic characteristics of the two colour-poles, we are now in a position to state the following. When a light-area subject to a lateral gradient is narrowed down, so that the gradient is directed towards the narrowing object, colours arise in which the interaction between the two polarically opposite forms of density is such that positive density makes for lightness, and negative density for darkness. Whereas, when the border is so situated that the gradient is directed away from it, the interaction is such that positive density makes for darkness, and negative density for lightness. Further, the fact that on both occasions the darkness element in the colour-band increases in the outward direction tells us that in this direction there is on the blue-violet side a gradual decrease in positive, and increase in negative, density, while on the opposite side we find just the reverse. We note again that both processes occupy a considerable part of the space originally outside the boundaries of the light-area – that is, at the violet end the part towards which the light-beam is deflected, and at the red end the part from which it turns away.

The visual ray, when penetrating actively into the two colour-phenomena thus described, receives evidence of a dynamic happening which may be expressed as follows.

Where the transverse impulse, which is due to the varying degree of Trübung in the light-realm, is directed towards the latter’s edge, the intermingling of the Dark-ingredient and the Light-ingredient, contained in that realm, is such that Dark follows Light along its already existing gradient, thereby diminishing steadily. Hence our visual ray, meeting conditions quite similar to those occurring when we look across the light-filled atmosphere into universal space, notifies us of the presence of the blue-violet colour-pole. If, on the other hand, the edge is in the wake of the transverse impulse, then a kind of dynamic vacuum arises in that part of space from which the beam is deflected, with the effect that the Dark-ingredient, imprinted on the light within the prism, is drawn into this vacuum by following a kind of suctional influence. Consequently Dark and Light here come to oppose one another, and the former, on its way out of the light-area, gains in relative strength. On this side our visual ray meets conditions resembling those which occur when we look across the darkening atmosphere into the sun. Accordingly our optical experience tells us of the presence of the yellow-red colour-pole.

From our description of the two kinds of dynamic co-ordination of positive and negative density at the two ends of the spectrum it follows that the spatial conditions prevailing at one end must be quite different from those at the other. To see this by way of actual perception is indeed not difficult. In fact, if we believe that we see both ends of the spectrum lying, as it were, flatly on the surface of the observation screen, this is merely an illusion due to our superficial way of using our eyes. If we gaze with our visual ray (activated in the manner previously described) into the two sides of the spectrum, while turning our eyes alternately in one or other direction, we soon notice that the colours of the yellow-red rise towards the eye so as to give the impression of protruding almost corporeally from the surface of the screen. We feel: Density obtains here in a state of fiery radiation. When turning to the other side we feel our visual ray, instead of being as before caught up in the colours, passing freely across the colours as if carried by them into the infinite. On the blue-violet side, space itself seems to fluoresce mysteriously5. Following Goethe’s conception of the physical-moral effect of colours, we may describe the experience received thus from the two poles of the spectrum by saying that an ‘other-worldly’ character belongs to the colours of the blue-violet pole; an ‘earthly’ character to those of the yellow-red; while that of green, which appears when both sides are made to overlap, witnesses to its mediating nature between the two.


In our endeavour to view the fundamental experiment of Newtonian optics with the eyes of Goethe we have been led from the wide expanse of the earth’s sunlit periphery into the confines of the darkened experimental chamber. With the aid of the results gained from studying the artificially produced spectrum phenomenon, we shall now return to our original field of observation in order to study the same phenomenon in nature. There it meets us in the form of the rainbow, which we shall now be able to read as a chapter in the great book of nature.

From what we have learnt already we can say at once that the rainbow must represent some sort of border-phenomenon, thus pointing to the existence of a boundary between two space-regions of differing illumination. Our question therefore must be: what is the light-image whose boundary comes to coloured manifestation in the phenomenon of the rainbow? There can be no doubt that the image is that of the sun-disk, shining in the sky. When we see a rainbow, what we are really looking at is the edge of an image of the sun-disk, caught and reflected, owing to favourable conditions, in the atmosphere. (Observe in this respect that the whole area inside the rainbow is always considerably brighter than the space outside.)

Once we realize this to be the true nature of the rainbow, the peculiar order of its colours begins to speak a significant language. The essential point to observe is that the blue-violet part of the spectrum lies on the inner side of the rainbow-arch – the side immediately adjoining the outer rim of the sun-image – while the yellow-red part lies on the outer side of the arch – the side turned away from the sun-image. What can we learn from this about the distribution of positive and negative density inside and outside the realm occupied by the sun-disk itself in the cosmos?

We remember that along the gradient from blue to violet, negative density (Light) increases and positive density (Dark) decreases, while from yellow to red it is just the reverse-positive density increases and negative density decreases. The rainbow therefore indicates a steady increase of Dark towards the outer rim, and of Light towards the inner. Evidently, what the optical image of the sun in the atmosphere thus reveals concerning the gradation of the ratio between Light and Dark in the radial direction, is an attribute of the entire light-realm which stretches from the sun to that image. And again, the attribute of this realm is but an effect of the dynamic relation between the sun itself and the surrounding cosmic space.

The rainbow thus becomes a script to us in which we read the remarkable fact that the region occupied by the sun in the cosmos is a region of negative density, in relation to which the region surrounding the sun is one of positive density. Far from being an accumulation of ponderable matter in a state of extremely high temperature, as science supposes, the sun represents the very opposite of ponderability. (It would be beyond the scope of this book to show how in the light of this fact one learns to re-read the various solar phenomena known to science.)

Once we realize this, our judgment of all that our terrestrially devised optical instruments, such as the telescope and spectroscope, tell us about the nature of the sun and its surroundings, will change accordingly. For it becomes clear that for the interpretation of solar phenomena shown by these instruments we cannot properly use concepts derived from observations within the earth’s realm of positive density.

To compare adequately solar and terrestrial phenomena, we must keep in mind that they are in every respect polar opposites. For instance, the fact that the spectroscope reveals phenomena in the sun’s light which are strikingly similar to others occurring when earthly matter is first caused to emit light – that is, brought near the upper border of its ponderable existence – and then studied spectroscopically, should not impose on us the illusion that the sun consists of matter in this same condition. On the contrary, the similarity should tell us that imponderable substance, while on its way between sun and earth to ponderable existence, assumes, at the point of transition, aspects exactly like those revealed by ponderable substance at the corresponding point in its upward transformation.

What we observe, when we study the sun through a spectroscope, is not the sun itself, but the conditions obtaining in this border-region, where imponderable substance enters the earth-realm.

The rainbow, directly we learn to see it as the border-phenomenon that it is, tells us something of itself which revives in modern form a conception held generally in former ages, when it was seen as a mediator between the cosmic-divine and the earthly-human worlds. Thus the Bible speaks of it as a symbol of God’s reconciliation with the human race after the great Flood. Thus the Greeks beheld it when they saw it as the bridge of Iris, messenger of the Gods; and similarly the Germanic mythology speaks of it as the pathway along which the souls of the fallen warriors draw near to Valhalla. By recovering this old conception in a new and scientifically grounded form we are enabled also to rectify the misunderstanding from which the ancient bridge-conception of the rainbow has suffered in later days, when tradition had begun to replace direct insight into the truth.

When with the rise of man’s onlooker-relation to the world of the senses, the rainbow could appear to him only as a form flattened against the sky, people began to think that the ancient picture of it as a bridge had been derived from its likeness to the latter’s arched form. Representations of the rainbow from these times indeed show supersensible beings, such as the souls of the dead, moving upwards and downwards along the two halves of the arch. It is not in this abstract way that ancient man formed his cosmic imagery. What was seen going on between the upper and nether worlds when a rainbow appeared in the heights of the atmosphere was no traffic over the arch, but an interplay across the rainbow between the realm of levity, glimmering down in the rainbow’s violet border, and the realm of gravity glowing up from the red. And this is how we have now learnt to see it again.


At one point in our optical studies (page 259) we referred to some words of Ruskin in which he deplored the influence exerted on the soul-life of modern man by the world-conception of science. He illustrated this by showing how much less inspiration a man trained in the science of optics receives from the sight of a rainbow than does a ‘simple peasant’. One lesson of our studies is that training in optics, if it proceeds on Goethean lines, has no such detrimental effect. There is, however, a further problem, outside Ruskin’s scope, which we are now able to approach in the same healthy way.

Ruskin distinguishes between three possible stages in man’s relation to the world of the senses. The first stage he calls that of ‘inactive reverie’; the second – in a certain respect more advanced – that of ‘useful thought’, the stage of scientifically awakened man to whom all things disintegrate into countable and nothing but countable parts. Beyond this, Ruskin conceives of a third, still higher stage, in which man becomes capable of raising himself through ‘higher contemplation’ into an artistic-ethical relation to the content of the sense-world. Now, in the way Ruskin represents the second and third stages they seem to be exclusive of one another. That was as far as he could go, in his own day. Natural observation along Goethean lines leads to a form of higher contemplation which unites the second and third stages by nourishing man’s ethical being and at the same time furnishing him with useful knowledge-knowledge, that is, which enables him to improve the conditions of the human race on the earth. The following is an example of the practical possibilities that open up in the field we are discussing if we apply the knowledge gained through our new approach to the forces working in nature.

We shall speak here of a task of experimental research which was mentioned by Rudolf Steiner in connexion with the renewal of natural science.

Rudolf Steiner felt the need for pioneers who, by advancing along the paths opened up by Goethe, would press forward into the realm of undiscovered phenomena on the upper border of nature, and this prompted him to give to those who were ready to listen various pointers towards new ways of experimental research. In so far as practical results have already been reached along these lines, they lie in the fields of biology and physiology (and of chemistry, in a certain respect) rather than in that of physics. Now, among the indications given in this latter field, and not yet worked out, there is one which deals with a way, unknown to-day, of influencing the spectrum by the magnet.

The possibility of a magnetic influence on the spectrum is, in itself, not unknown to modern physics. It was the Dutchman, Zeeman, who first observed a change in the appearance of certain spectral lines as a result of light passing through a magnetic field. This discovery, however, is in two respects typical of modern science. The Zeeman effect consists in the splitting up of certain spectral lines into other lines – hence, of a breaking up of a whole into parts. And by seemingly providing a decisive confirmation of contemporary views concerning the electromagnetic nature of light, Zeeman’s discovery has formed one of the milestones in the progress of modern physical thought – with the usual result that an enlargement of man’s knowledge of the behaviour of natural forces has served to entangle his conception of nature still more deeply in illusion.

Apart from the fact that our own way of combining observation and thought guards us against drawing theoretical conclusions from Zeeman’s discovery, Rudolf Steiner’s indication opens up the prospect of achieving quite practical results, opposite in character to those of the Zeeman effect. For in contradistinction to the use of a magnetic field for splitting the spectrum, Rudolf Steiner has made us aware of the possibility of uniting into a higher synthesis parts of the spectrum which normally appear in separated form. His indication points to nothing less than a leading over of the optically produced spectrum from its usual linear form, with two boundaries on either side, into a closed circular form, and of doing this by an adequate application – as yet undiscovered – of magnetic force. Further, according to his statement, the point where the two ends of the spectrum meet will prove to be a fountain-head of certain higher natural forces which otherwise are not directly accessible.

In order to understand how this is possible, we must remember that in two respects the spectrum is not a complete phenomenon. There is, to begin with, the fact that the colour-band visible on the observation screen is only apparently confined to the surface of the screen. For, as we have seen, because of the differing co-ordination of levity and gravity at the two ends of the spectrum, the conditions of space prevailing at each are polarically opposite. Negative space opens up spherically behind the blue-violet colours on one side, while positive space, filled by the radially shining yellow-red colours, arises on the other. So we see that what we found earlier for the two poles of magnetism and electricity holds good also for the spectrum. That is, the two processes bringing about the relevant phenomena are not confined to the part of space which these phenomena seem to occupy; for the whole positive and negative realms of the universe share in them. Hence the spectrum, though apparently bounded at its two ends, proves by its very nature to be part of a greater whole.

Once before we were led to recognize – though from a different aspect – that the spectrum is a phenomenon which, when rightly viewed, calls for a certain completion. In following Goethe’s initial observations we realized that the known spectrum, extending from red via green to violet, has a counterpart extending from violet via peach-blossom to red. The reader may have wondered why we never returned to this other spectrum, in spite of the role it played in making Goethe aware of Newton’s error. The reason was that in order to gain the understanding we needed of the spectrum, we had to observe the two border-phenomena independently – that is, without regard to their relative positions. Moreover, with ordinary optical means it is possible to produce only one type of spectrum at a time, so that each is left in need of being complemented by the other. In order to have both together in finite space, as part of one and the same phenomenon, space itself must be dynamically transformed in such a way that the continuation of the finite spectral band running through infinity enters into the finite as well.

Our understanding of magnetism as a specific representation of the polarity of the second order enables us to comprehend, at least in principle, how magnetism might influence – not light itself, as present-day physics erroneously believes – but the secondary polarity of the spectral colours formed out of the primary polarity Light and Dark. To see this in all necessary detail is a task of the future, beyond the scope of this book. We have here to continue our account of Rudolf Steiner’s statement by communicating what he indicated concerning the particular nature of the new source of force which would appear in the normally infinite part of the spectrum, if this were brought into the region of the finite.

In order to understand the significance of this indication we must turn our attention to parts of the ordinary spectrum, well known in themselves, which we have purposely left out of our study so far. These are the regions of the ultra-violet and the infra-red, invisible in themselves, but forming part of the spectrum as a whole. The ultraviolet manifests through chemical effects, the infra-red through thermal effects. We have left them out of our considerations because these regions of the spectrum differ from the visible part not only quantitatively, as present-day science believes, but qualitatively also, and in a fundamental way. We must regard them as dynamic realms of particularly extreme spherical and radial activities. As such they represent metamorphoses, in the Goethean sense, of the levity-gravity interaction represented by the optically visible part of the spectrum. In this way the spectrum discloses a threefold differentiation of that region of force, which up to now we have called simply levity, into activities producing chemical, optical and thermal effects.

So far physical investigation is able to lead us, but no further. If, however, we let nature herself speak to us, while holding this differentiated concept of levity in mind, she tells us that beyond the three metamorphoses envisaged so far, there must be a fourth.

Let us remember that it was certain phenomena of life which first made us aware of the existence of a realm of forces with the attributes of anti-gravity, and that these forces revealed themselves first as creators of form. Now it is obvious that warmth, light and chemical energy, though they all play an essential part in living organisms, could never by themselves bring about that ‘catching from chaos, carbon, water, lime and what not and fastening them into a given form’ which Ruskin describes as the activity of the spirit in the plant. In order to be in this sense an instrument of the spirit active in nature, levity must be capable of yet another metamorphosis into an activity which controls the other three, so that through their action, definitely shaped organic structures may come into being.

The reason why this fourth and highest metamorphosis of Light does not appear in the ordinary spectrum is because it is of too spiritual a quality to be caught by the optical apparatus. In nature herself a creative life-process requires always the presence of a germ already imbued with life. And so, in order to call this fourth metamorphosis of Light into the spectrum, stronger means are needed than the mere optical transformation of light-filled spaces. This stronger agent, according to Rudolf Steiner, is magnetism. With the aid of this it will be possible to organize together round a common spatial centre that part of the activity of levity which escapes the optical instrument and thus remains cosmic, and that part which appears by itself in terrestrial space.

Once this is practically carried out, we may expect a complete colour-circle to appear as already divined by Goethe. The full circle consists of twelve discernible colours, with the Goethean peach-blossom diametrically opposite the green. It is in this region of the peach-blossom that – again according to Rudolf Steiner – we shall find a source of actively working life-forces, springing from the fourth metamorphosis of levity. Such is the prospect for research work guided on the new lines.


The fact of our having disclosed here one of Rudolf Steiner’s indications concerning as yet undetected possibilities of scientific research, makes it necessary to deal with an objection which may be raised, particularly by some readers who already know this indication through their own relation to Rudolf Steiner’s work. They may object to a discussion of the subject in a publication such as this, feeling it dangerous to hand over to the world information which in the economic battles of to-day might be used in a sense contrary to the social-moral aims to which the work of Rudolf Steiner was dedicated.

In reply it may be said that all we have gone through in this book has shown that concrete knowledge of the world cannot be gained without a certain ethical effort by the seeker. Therefore, anyone who receives such knowledge with a passive attitude of soul will find it meaningless, and will be quite unable to turn it to practical account. We may therefore rest assured that the solution of the problem related here, as of any other experimental task set by Rudolf Steiner, will contain in itself a guarantee that no use will be made of it detrimental to the true progress of mankind.

On the other hand, the present world-situation, which to so high a degree is determined by the vast liberation of the sub-physical forces of the earth, makes one feel it is essential not to close the considerations of the fields of knowledge dealt with in these chapters, without a hint at the practical possibilities which arise from a continuation of Goethe’s strivings in this field.

1 See, in Rudolf Steiner’s edition of Goethe’s scientific writings, his footnote to Goethe’s criticism of Nuguet’s theory of the spectrum in the historical part of the Farbenlehre (Vol. IV, p. 248, in Kürschner’s edition).

2 It is obvious that the reader who wishes to appreciate fully the significance of the observations described in the following paragraphs, must, as in previous cases, carry out these observations himself.

3 In this and the two following diagrams the light-realm has been represented as being less wide than the space obtained by the prism. To avoid unnecessary complexity the colours which, in such a case, actually appear at the border of the light-realm where it emerges from the prism are not shown in any of the diagrams.

4 This direction can be established with sufficient exactitude by holding a very thin object right in front of the prism and marking with a stretched thread the direction which leads from the object to its shadow on the screen. The colour-producing edge must then be introduced from either side so that it just touches the thread.

5 The difference in character of the various parts of the spectrum, as described above, comes out particularly impressively if for capturing the colour-phenomenon one uses instead of a flat white surface, a clear crystal of not too small size, or else a cluster of crystals – moving it slowly along the coloured band from one end to the other. (I am indebted to Fr. Julius, teacher of Natural Science at the Free School in The Hague, for this suggestion.)