CHAPTER XXI – Know Thyself

PART III: Towards a New Cosmosophy

CHAPTER XXI      Know Thyself

Our inquiries have led us to a picture of man as a sensible-supersensible organism composed of three dynamic aggregates – physical, etheric, astral. As three rungs of a spiritual ladder they point to a fourth, which represents that particular power in man by which he distinguishes himself from all other beings in nature. For what makes man differ from all these is that he is not only fitted, as they are, with a once-for-all given mode of spiritual-physical existence peculiar to himself, but that he is endowed with the possibility of transforming his existence by dint of his free will – that indeed his manhood is based on this capacity for self-willed Becoming.

To this fourth principle in man we can give no better name than that which every human being can apply to himself alone and to no other, and which no other can apply to him. This is the name, I. In truth, we describe man in his entirety only if we ascribe to him, in addition to a physical, etheric and astral body, the possession of an I (Ego).

Naturally, our previous studies have afforded many opportunities for observing the nature and mode of activity of the I. Still, at the conclusion of these studies it is not redundant to form a concise picture of this part of man’s being, with particular regard to how it works within the three other principles as its sheaths. For in modern psychology, not excluding the branch of it where efforts are made to penetrate into deeper regions of man’s being, nothing is less well understood than the true nature of man’s egoity.


In order to recognize the peculiar function of the I in man, we must first be clear as to how he differs from the other kingdoms of nature, and how they differ from one another with respect to the mode of action of the physical, etheric and astral forces.

The beings of all the kingdoms of nature are endowed with an aggregate of physical forces in the form of a material body subject to gravity. The same cannot be said of the etheric forces. Only where life is present as an inherent principle – that is, in plant, animal and man – is ether at work in the form of an individual etheric organization, while the mineral is formed by the universal ether from outside. Where life prevails, we are met by the phenomena of birth and death. When a living organism comes to birth, an individual ether-body is formed out of the general etheric substance of the universe.1 The death of such an organism consists in the separation of the etheric from the physical body and the dissolution of both in their respective mother-realms. So long as an organism is alive, its form is maintained by the ether-body present in it.

Our studies have shown that the plant is not devoid of the operation of astral forces. In the plant’s life-cycle this comes to clearest expression in its florescence. But it is a working of the astral forces from outside, very much as the ether works on the mineral. As a symptom of this fact we may recall the dependence of the plant on the various outer astronomical rhythms.

It is only in animal and man that we find the astral forces working in the form of separate astral bodies. This accounts for their capacity for sensation and volition. Besides the alternation of birth and death, they experience the rhythm of sleeping and waking. Sleep occurs when the astral body leaves the physical and etheric bodies in order to expand into its planetary mother-sphere, whence it gathers new energy. During this time its action on the physical-etheric aggregate remaining upon earth is similar to that of the astral cosmos upon the plant.

Again, in the animal kingdom the ego-principle works as an external force in the form of various group-soul activities which control and regulate the life of the different animal species. It is in the group-ego of the species that we have to look for the source of the wisdom-filled instincts which we meet in the single animals.

Only in man does the ego-principle enter as an individual entity into the single physico-etheric-astral organism. Here, however, the succession of stages we have outlined comes to a conclusion. For with the appearance of the I as an individual principle, the preceding evolutionary process – or, more correctly, the involutionary process – begins to be reversed. In moving up from one kingdom to the next, we find always one more dynamic principle appearing in a state of separation from its mother-sphere; this continues to the point where the I, through uniting itself with a thus emancipated physico-etheric-astral organism, arrives at the stage of self-consciousness. Once this stage has been reached, however, it falls to the I to reverse the process of isolation, temporarily sanctioned by the cosmos for the sake of man.

That it is not in the nature of the I to leave its sheaths in the condition in which it finds them when entering them at the beginning of life, can be seen from the activities it performs in them during the first period after birth. Indeed, in man’s early childhood we meet a number of events in which we can perceive something like ur-deeds of the I. They are the acquisition of the faculties of walking, speaking and thinking. What we shall here say about them has, in essentials, already been touched upon in earlier pages. Here, however, we are putting it forward in a new light.

Once again we find our attention directed to the threefold structure of man’s physical organism. For the faculty of upright walking is a result of the I’s activity in the limb-system of the body; the acquisition of speech takes place in the rhythmic system; and thinking is a faculty based on the nerve-system. Consequently, each of the three achievements comes to pass at a different level of consciousness-sleeping, dreaming, waking. All through the struggle of erecting the body against the pull of gravity, the child is entirely unaware of the activities of his own I. In the course of acquiring speech he gains a dim awareness, as though in dream, of his efforts. Some capacity of thinking has to unfold before the first glimmer of true self-consciousness is kindled. (Note that the word ‘I’ is the only one that is not added to the child’s vocabulary by way of imitation. Otherwise he would, as some mentally inhibited children do, call all other people ‘I’ and himself ‘you’.)

This picture of the three ur-deeds of the I can now be amplified in the following way. We know that the region of the bodily limbs is that in which physical, etheric and astral forces interpenetrate most deeply. Consequently, the I can here press forward most powerfully into the physical body and on into the dynamic sphere to which the body is subject. Here the I is active in a way that is ‘magic’ in the highest degree. Moreover, there is no other action for which the I receives so little stimulus from outside. For, in comparison, the activity that leads to the acquisition of speech is much more of the nature of a reaction to stimuli coming from outside – the sounds reaching the child from his environment. And it is also with the first words of the language that the first thoughts enter the child’s mind. Nothing of the kind happens at the first stage. On the contrary: everything that confronts the I here is of the nature of an obstacle that is to be overcome.

There is no learning to speak without the hearing of uttered sounds. As these sounds approach the human being they set the astral body in movement, as we have seen. The movements of the astral body flow towards the larynx, where they are seized by the I; through their help the I imbues the larynx with the faculty of producing these sounds itself. Here, therefore, the I is active essentially within the astral body which has received its stimulus from outside. In order to understand what impels the I to such action, we must remember the role played by speech in human life: without speech there would be no community among human individuals on earth.

An illustration of what the I accomplishes as it enters upon the third stage is provided by the following episode, actually observed. Whilst all the members of a family were sitting at table taking their soup, the youngest member suddenly cried out: ‘Daddy spoon … mummy spoon. … ‘ (everyone in turn spoon) ‘ … all spoon!’ At this moment, from merely designating single objects by names learnt through imitation, the child’s consciousness had awakened to connective thinking. That this achievement was a cause of inner satisfaction could be heard in the joyful crescendo with which these ejaculations were made.

We know that the presence of waking consciousness within the nerves-and-senses organism rests upon the fact that the connexion between physical body and etheric body is there the most external of all. But precisely because this is so, the etheric body is dominated very strongly by the forces to which the physical head owes its formation. This, too, is not fundamentally new to us. What can now be added is that, in consequence, the physical brain and the part of the etheric body belonging to it – the etheric brain – assume a function comparable with that of a mirror, the physical organ representing the reflecting mass and the etheric organ its metallic gloss. When, within the head, the etheric body reflects back the impressions received from the astral body, the I becomes aware of them in the form of mental images (the ‘ideas’ of the onlooker-philosopher). It is also by way of such reflexion that the I first grows aware of itself – but as nothing more than an image among images. Here, therefore, it is itself least active.

If, once again, we compare the three happenings of learning to walk, to speak and to think, we find ourselves faced with the remarkable fact that the progressive lighting up of consciousness from one stage to the next, goes hand in hand with a retrogression in the activity of the I itself. At the first stage, where the I knows least of itself, it is alive in the most direct sense out of its own being; at the second stage, where it is in the dreaming state, it receives the impetus of action through the astral body; at the third stage, where the I wakens to clear self-consciousness, it assumes merely the role of onlooker at the pictures moving within the etheric body.

Compare with this the paths to higher faculties of knowledge, Imagination and Inspiration, as we learnt to know them in our previous studies. The comparison shows that exactly the same forces come into play at the beginning of life, when the I endeavours to descend from its pre-earthly, cosmic environment to its earthly existence, as have to be made use of for the ascending of the I from earthly to cosmic consciousness. Only, as is natural, the sequence of steps is reversed. For on the upward way the first deed of the I is that which leads to a wakening in the etheric world: it is a learning to set in motion the etheric forces in the region of the head in such a way that the usual isolation of this part of the etheric body is overcome. Regarded thus, the activity of the I at this stage reveals a striking similarity to the activity applied in the earliest period of childhood at the opposite pole of the organism. To be capable of imaginative sight actually means to be able to move about in etheric space by means of the etheric limbs of the eyes just as one moves about in physical space by means of the physical limbs.

Similarly, the acquisition of Inspiration is a resuming on a higher level of the activity exercised by the I with the help of the astral body when learning to speak. And here, too, the functions are reversed. For while the child is stimulated by the spoken sounds he hears to bring his own organ of speech into corresponding movements, and so gradually learns to produce speech, the acquisition of Inspiration, as we have seen, depends on learning to bring the supersensible forces of the speech-organ into movement in such a way that these forces become the organ for hearing the supersensible language of the universe.

Our knowledge of the threefold structure of man’s organism leads us to seek, besides the stages of Imagination and Inspiration, a third stage which is as much germinally present in the body’s region of movement, as the two others are in the regions of thought and speech. After what we have learnt in regard to these three, we may assume that the path leading to this third stage consists in producing a condition of wide-awake, tranquil contemplation in the very region where the I is wont to unfold its highest degree of initiative on the lowest level of consciousness.

In an elementary manner this attitude of soul was practised by us when, in our earlier studies, we endeavoured to become inner observers of the activity of our own limbs, with the aim of discovering the origin of our concept of mass. It was in this way that a line of observation opened up to us which led to the recognition of the physical substances of the earth as congealed spiritual functions or, we may say, congealed utterances of cosmic will.

Cosmic Will, however, does not work into our existence only in such a way that, in the form of old and therefore rigid Will, it puts up resistance against the young will-power of the I, so that in overcoming this resistance the I may waken to self-activity. Cosmic Will is also present in us in an active form. We point here to the penetration by the higher powers of the universe into the forming of the destiny of humanity and of individual man. And here Rudolf Steiner has shown that to a man who succeeds in becoming a completely objective observer of his own existence while actively functioning within it (as in an elementary way we endeavoured to become observers of our limb actions while engaged in performing them) the world begins to reveal itself as an arena of the activities of divine-spiritual Beings, whose reality and acts he is now able to apprehend through inner awareness. Herewith a third stage of man’s faculty of cognition is added to the stages of Imagination and Inspiration. When Rudolf Steiner chose for it the word Intuition he applied this word, also, in its truest meaning.


While through Imagination man comes to know of his ether-body as part of his make-up, and correspondingly through Inspiration of his astral body, and thereby recognizes himself as participant in the supersensible forces of the universe, it is through Intuition that he grows into full awareness of his I as a spirit-being among spirit-beings –

God-begotten, God-companioned,
for ever God-ward striving.

1 The word ‘body’ is here used in a sense no different from our earlier use of it, when in connexion with our study of combustion (Chapter XI) we referred to the ‘warmth-body’ as a characteristic of the higher animals and man. Such a warmth-body is nothing else but the warmth-ether part of an ether-body. To use the word body for aggregations of etheric or astral forces is legitimate if one considers the fact that the physical body also is really a purely dynamic entity, that is, a certain aggregate of forces more or less self-contained.

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