Steiner’s conception of human nature was exceedingly complex. He drew distinctions where there are few if any real difference. He attributed various capacities to different “members” of the human being. In some instances these capacities are pure fantasy, while in others they are actually just functions of the physical body and, especially, a single physical organ, the brain — or so modern science tells us. Most of what Steiner laid out — superimposed on an elaborate cosmological history, and odd descriptions of sleep, death, and memory, among other things — has no basis in ascertainable fact.
The following quotations may shed a little light. I will quote largely from some of Steiner’s earlier works, when he tended to express himself more clearly than he did later on. This will not distort things much: His views on these fundamental matters did not change much over time.
Attempting to make the statements as clear as may be, I have highlighted some key phrases. However, most of the statements deal with more than one topic.
"The body consists of: (1) the actual body, (2) the life-body, (3) the sentient-body. The soul consists of: (4) the sentient-soul, (5) the intellectual-soul, (6) the consciousness-soul. The spirit consists of: (7) spirit-self, (8) life-spirit, (9) spirit-man. In the incarnated human being, 3 and 4, and 6 and 7 unite, flowing into one another. Through this fact the nine members appear to have contracted into seven members." — Rudolf Steiner, REINCARNATION AND KARMA (Anthroposophic Press, 1962), essay 2, "How Karma Works", GA 34.
"As the physical body is enclosed in the physical skin, so is the spirit man in the spirit sheath. The members of the whole man are therefore as follows:
A. Physical body
B. Ether or life body
C. Soul body
D. Sentient soul
E. Intellectual soul
F. Consciousness soul
G. Spirit self
H. Life spirit
I. Spirit man
"Soul body (C) and sentient soul (D) are a unity in the earthly human being. In the same way consciousness soul (F) and spirit self (G) are a unity. Thus there come to be seven members in earthly man.
1. Physical body
2. Etheric or life body
3. Sentient soul body
4. Intellectual soul
5. Spirit-filled consciousness soul
6. Life spirit
7. Spirit man
"...This arrangement of the members of man can be expressed in a simplified way, but one entirely consistent with the above ... Taking all this as basis, the following arrangement may also be given of the members of man:
1. Physical body
2. Life body
3. Astral body
4. I, as soul kernel
5. Spirit self as transmuted astral body
6. Life spirit as transmuted life body
7. Spirit man as transmuted physical body"
— Rudolf Steiner, THEOSOPHY (Anthroposophic Press, 1971), chapter 1, part 4, GA 9.
Note that, in later works, Steiner usually referred to the "life body" as the "etheric body," and he called the "soul body" the "astral body." Above them he located the "ego body" or "ego" or "I." These are the labels that Anthroposophists generally use today.
“The Corporeal Nature of Man. We learn to know man's body through bodily senses, and the manner of observing it cannot differ from the way in which we learn to know other objects perceived by the senses. As we observe minerals, plants and animals, so can we also observe man. He is related to these three forms of existence. Like the minerals, he builds his body out of natural substances; like the plants, he grows and propagates his species; like the animals, he perceives the objects around him and builds up his inner experiences on the basis of the impressions they make on him. Thus, a mineral, a plant and an animal existence may be ascribed to man.” — Rudolf Steiner, THEOSOPHY, chapter 1, part 1.
“[T]he difference between the spiritual and the physical nature of man is that the physical nature has a limited size while the spiritual nature can grow to an unlimited extent.” — THEOSOPHY, chapter 1, part 4.
Etheric Body or Life Body
“The mineral forces are perceived by man by means of his bodily senses ... Man, however, does not perceive the manifestations of the life-force through the ordinary senses ... [T]he various species of plants and animals created by the life-force — not merely the individual plants and animals — are present for man as objects of perception as soon as the necessary organ unfolds within him. An entirely new world opens out to him through the unfolding of this organ [of clairvoyance] ... In each plant and animal he perceives, besides the physical form, the life-filled spirit-form. In order to have a name for this spirit-form, let it be called the ether body or life body [or “formative-force body”] ... The ether body is an organism that preserves the physical body from dissolution every moment during life. In order to see this body, to perceive it in another being, the awakened spiritual eye is required. Without this ability its existence as a fact can still be accepted on logical grounds, but it can be seen with the spiritual eye just as color can be seen with the physical eye.” — THEOSOPHY, chapter 1, part 4.
“[O]ne experiences oneself within one’s own etheric organism and in the etheric cosmos. What is thus experienced through the confluence of his own etheric nature with the etheric weaving and pulsing in the cosmos, man is now able to bring into sharply outline picture concepts, and then also to formulate and express it in human language.” — Rudolf Steiner, PHILOSOPHY, COSMOLOGY, AND RELIGION (SteinerBooks, 1984), pp. 22-23.
“The student must acquire the power of regulating and controlling the movement of his spiritual organs independently and with complete consciousness; otherwise he would become a plaything for external forces and powers. To avoid this he must acquire the faculty of hearing what is called the inner world, and this involves the development not only of the soul-body but also of the etheric body. The latter is that tenuous body revealed to the clairvoyant as a kind of double of the physical body, and forms to a certain extent an intermediate step between the soul nature and the physical body. (See the description on the author's book THEOSOPHY.) It is possible for one equipped with clairvoyant powers consciously to suggest away the physical body of a person. This corresponds on a higher plane to an exercise in attentiveness on a lower plane. Just as a person can divert his attention from something in front of him so that it becomes non-existent for him, the clairvoyant can extinguish a physical body from his field of observation so that it becomes physically transparent to him. If he exerts this faculty in the case of some person standing before him, there remains visible to his clairvoyant sight only the etheric body, besides the soul-body which is larger than the other two — etheric and physical bodies — and interpenetrates them both. The etheric body has approximately the size and form of the physical body, so that it practically fills the same space. It is an extremely delicate and finely organized structure.” — Rudolf Steiner, KNOWLEDGE OF THE HIGHER WORLDS AND ITS ATTAINMENT (Anthroposophic Press, 1947), chapter 6, GA 10.
Soul Body, Astral Body, Sentient Body
“[B]etween the physical body and the ether body on the one hand, and the sentient soul on the other, another distinct member of the human constitution inserts itself. This is the soul body or sentient body. It may also be said that one part of the ether body is finer than the rest and this finer part forms a unity with the sentient soul, whereas the coarser part forms a kind of unity with the physical body. The sentient soul, nevertheless, extends, as has been said, beyond the soul body.” — THEOSOPHY, chapter 1, part 4.
“Memory appears in various stages. Its simplest form occurs when a person observes an object and, after turning away, is able to call up its mental image, is able to visualize it. He has formed this image while perceiving the object. A process has taken place between his astral body and his ego. The astral body has aroused the consciousness of the outer impression of the object. Yet knowledge of the object would last only as long as the latter is present, if the ego were not to absorb this knowledge and make it its own. — It is at this point that supersensible perception separates the bodily element from the soul nature. One speaks of the astral body as long as one considers the arising of knowledge of an object that is present. What, however, gives permanence to this knowledge one designates as soul. From what has been said we can see at the same time how closely the human astral body is connected with that part of the soul that gives permanence to knowledge. Both are united into one member of the human entity. This union, therefore, may also be called astral body. If we desire an exact designation, we may call the human astral body the soul body, the soul, in so far as it is united with this soul body, we may call the sentient soul.” — Rudolf Steiner, AN OUTLINE OF OCCULT SCIENCE (Anthroposophic Press, 1972), chapter 2, GA 13.
“All the creative work of man depends — so far as the manifest world is concerned — on his activity in waking life. But this activity is only possible if he again and again derives from sleep a strengthening of his exhausted forces. In sleep, action and thought disappear; pain and joy vanish from conscious life. On awakening, man's conscious powers well up from the unconsciousness of sleep ... To the science of the supersensible, what rouses life again and again from the unconscious state is the third member of the human being. It may be called the Astral Body.
“... [T]he forces of the etheric body cannot of themselves become illumined with the light of consciousness. Left to itself, an etheric body would of necessity be in a perpetual state of sleep — or, we may also say, could only maintain in the physical body a vegetable form of life. An etheric body that is awake is illumined by an astral body.” — Rudolf Steiner, OCCULT SCIENCE - AN OUTLINE (Rudolf Steiner Press, 1963), chapter 2, GA 13.
"I" or Ego
“The fourth member which supersensible science attributes to the human being, is one he no longer has in common with any of the manifest world around him. Indeed it is this fourth member which distinguishes him from all his fellow-creatures and marks him as the crown of the creation.
“...The animal experiences the influences of the outer world with great regularity. Under the influences of heat and cold it becomes conscious of pain or pleasure ... Man's life is not exhausted by experiences such as these. He can develop wishes and cravings transcending all these things ... He can give birth to wishes and desires for whose origin no external cause — whether in the body or outside it — is sufficient. Everything that belongs to this domain must be attributed to a special source, which the science of the supersensible recognizes to be the I or Ego of man. The I may therefore be described as the fourth member of the human being.
“...With the awareness of something permanent and lasting in the changing flow of inner experiences, the feeling of ‘I’ of inner selfhood begins to dawn
“...The physical body disintegrates when it is not held together by the etheric; the etheric body falls into unconsciousness when it is not irradiated by the astral body. In the like manner the astral body would ever and again have to let the past sink into oblivion if the I did not preserve the past and carry it over into the present. Forgetting is for the astral body what death is for the physical body and sleep for the etheric. Or, as we may also express it: life is proper to the etheric body, consciousness to the astral body, and memory to the Ego.” — OCCULT SCIENCE - AN OUTLINE, chapter 2.
Soul, Soul Parts
“The soul nature of man is not determined by the body alone ... Nature subjects man to the laws of changing matter, but he subjects himself to the laws of thought. By this means he makes himself a member of a higher order than the one to which he belongs through his body. This order is the spiritual. The spiritual is as different from the soul as the soul is from the body. As long as only the particles of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen that are in motion in the body are spoken of, we do not have the soul in view. Soul life begins only when within the motion of these particles the feeling arises, `I taste sweetness,’ or, ‘I feel pleasure.’ Likewise, we do not have the spirit in view as long as merely those soul experiences are considered that course through anyone who gives himself over entirely to the outer world and his bodily life. This soul life is rather the basis of the spiritual just as the body is the basis of the soul life. The biologist is concerned with the body, the investigator of the soul — the psychologist — with the soul [roughly speaking, the mind], and the investigator of the spirit with the spirit. It is incumbent on those who would understand the nature of man by means of thinking, first to make clear to themselves through self-reflection the difference between body, soul and spirit.” — THEOSOPHY, chapter 1, part 3.
“The soul is the connecting link between the spirit of man and his body ... While the soul lives in the body, it participates, so to speak, in all that takes place in the body ... The soul, however, has its share in the activities of the spirit also. One thought fills it with joy, another with abhorrence; a correct judgment has the approval of the soul, a false one its disapproval. The stage of evolution of a man depends, in fact, on whether the inclinations of his soul move more in one direction or in another. A man is the more perfect, the more his soul sympathizes with the manifestations of the spirit. He is the more imperfect the more the inclinations of his soul are satisfied by the functions of his body.” — THEOSOPHY, chapter 3, part 2.
“For Spiritual Science, the human soul is not a vague, nebulous something, but an essential part of man's being, consisting of three distinct soul-members — Sentient Soul, Mind-Soul, Consciousness Soul [also called Spiritual Soul] — within which the Ego is actively engaged.
“Let us try to form an idea of these three soul-members. The spiritual investigator knows them by direct observation, but we can approach them also by means of rational thinking ... Our concepts are formed in the Sentient Soul, and the Sentient Soul is the bearer also of our sympathies and antipathies, of the feelings that things arouse in us.
“... A higher principle is brought into being by the work of the Ego on the etheric body: we call it the Mind-Soul, or Intellectual Soul ... Instead of merely keeping his perceptions alive as images in the Sentient Soul, [man] reflects on them and devotes himself to them ... This continued cultivation of impressions received from the outer world is the work of what we call the Intellectual Soul or Mind-soul.
“A third principle is brought into being when the Ego has created in the physical body the organs whereby it is enabled to go out from itself and to connect its judgments, ideas and feelings with the external world. This principle we call the Consciousness Soul [also called Spiritual Soul] ... Through the Consciousness Soul we explore the secrets of the outer world as human beings endowed with knowledge and cognition.” — Rudolf Steiner, METAMORPHOSES OF THE SOUL: Paths of Experience, Vol. 1 (Rudolf Steiner Press, 1983), lecture 2, GA 58.
Spirit, Spirit Parts
“The spirit is the central point of man, the body the intermediary by which the spirit observes and learns to understand the physical world, and through which it acts in that world. The soul is the intermediary between the two ... Since the spirit is able to act in the physical world only through the soul as intermediary, this spirit itself is thus given the direction towards the physical. Its formations are drawn toward the physical by the forces of the soul ... Since the spiritual self lives from incarnation to incarnation, it is intended to receive its direction ever increasingly from the spiritual. Its knowledge should be determined by the spirit of eternal truth; its action by eternal goodness.
“...When the body shall die is determined by the laws of the body. Speaking generally, it must be said that it is not the soul and spirit that forsake the body, but they are set free by the body when its forces are no longer able to fulfill the purpose of the human soul organism. The relationship between soul and spirit is just the same. The soul will set the spirit free to pass into the higher, spiritual world, when its forces are no longer able to fulfill the purpose of the human soul organism.” — THEOSOPHY, chapter 3, part 2.
“The ‘I’ lives in the soul. Although the highest manifestation of the 'I' belongs to the consciousness soul, one must, nevertheless, say that this 'I' raying out from it fills the whole soul, and through it exerts its action upon the body. In the 'I' the spirit is alive. The spirit sends its rays into the 'I' and lives in it as in a sheath or veil, just as the 'I' lives in its sheaths, the body and soul. The spirit develops the 'I' from within, outwards; the mineral world develops it from without, inwards. The spirit forming and living as 'I' will be called spirit self because it manifests as the 'I,' or ego, or self of man. The difference between the spirit self and the consciousness soul can be made clear in the following way. The consciousness soul is in touch with the self-existent truth that is independent of all antipathy and sympathy. The spirit self bears within it the same truth, but taken up into and enclosed by the 'I,' individualized by it, and absorbed into the independent being of the individual. It is through the eternal truth becoming thus individualized and bound up into one being with the 'I' that the 'I' itself attains to the eternal. The spirit self is a revelation of the spiritual world within the 'I,' just as from the other side sensations are a revelation of the physical world within the ‘I.’” — THEOSOPHY, chapter 1, part 4.
“We have referred here only to a few instances that give to the I the impulse to act upon the ether body. There are many similar influences in human life that are not so apparent to the observing eye as those that have been mentioned. But from these it is evident that hidden within man there is another member of his being that the I gradually develops. This member may be called the second spiritual member, the life spirit. (It is called “buddhi” in Oriental wisdom.) The expression “life spirit” is the appropriate term for the reason that the same forces are active in what it designates as in the “life body”; only, in these forces, when they manifest themselves as life body, the human ego is not active. If they manifest as life spirit, however, they are permeated by the activity of the I.
“The intellectual development of man, his purification and ennobling of the utterances of feeling and will are the measure of his transformation of the astral body in spirit self; his religious and many other experiences imprint themselves upon the ether body and transform it into life spirit. In the usual course of life this occurs more or less unconsciously. On the other hand, what is called initiation of man consists in his being directed by supersensible knowledge to the means that enable him to undertake this work on the spirit self and life spirit in full consciousness.” — AN OUTLINE OF OCCULT SCIENCE, chapter 2.
“Within the physical world each human body is built up as a separate being, and within the spirit world the spirit body is also built up separately ... Man is born of the physical world, and he is also born of the spirit through the eternal laws of the true and the good. He is separated as an independent being from the spirit world outside him, and he is separated in the same manner from the whole physical world. This independent spiritual being will be called the spirit man.
“...The spiritual skin that separates the spirit man from the unitary spirit world makes him an independent being within it, living a life within himself and perceiving intuitively the spiritual content of the world. Let us call this 'spiritual skin' (auric sheath) the spirit sheath ... The spirit man lives within this spirit sheath. It is built up by the spiritual life force in the same way as the physical body is by the physical life force. In a similar way to that in which one speaks of an ether body, one must speak of an ether spirit in reference to the spirit man. Let his ether spirit be called life spirit. The spiritual nature of man is thus composed of three parts, spirit man, life spirit and spirit self.” — THEOSOPHY, chapter 1, part 4.
“[I]in the light of Occult Science man appears as a being composed of several members. Those of a bodily nature are: physical body, etheric body and astral body. Those of the soul are: sentient soul, intellectual soul and spiritual soul. In the soul the Ego sheds its light. Lastly we have the spiritual members: Spirit-Self, Life-Spirit and Spirit-Man.
“...[T]he sentient soul and the astral body are intimately united, forming in one respect a single whole. The same is true of the spiritual soul and the Spirit-Self. For in the spiritual soul the light of the Spirit arises, to radiate from thence throughout the other members of man's nature. Taking this into account, the constitution of the human being may also be described as follows: The astral body and the sentient soul can be taken together as a single member; likewise the spiritual soul and the Spirit-Self. Lastly the intellectual soul, since it partakes of the nature of the I — since in a certain respect it is the I, though not yet conscious of its spiritual being — may be designated simply as the I or Ego. We thus obtain the following seven members of the human being:
Etheric body or life-body
— OCCULT SCIENCE - AN OUTLINE, chapter 2.
“During the last Saturn cycle the spirit man (Atma) was formed with the help of the Spirits of Will (Thrones). During the penultimate Sun cycle, the life-spirit (Buddhi) was joined to it with the assistance of the Cherubim. During the third from the last Moon cycle, the spirit-self (Manas) united with the two others through the help of the Seraphim. Thus actually two origins of man were formed during these three great cycles: a lower man, consisting of physical body, ether body, and astral body, and a higher man, consisting of spirit man (Atma), life-spirit (Buddhi), and spirit-self (Manas). The lower and the higher nature of man followed separate paths at first.” — Rudolf Steiner, COSMIC MEMORY (Rudolf Steiner Publications, 1959), chapter 17, “Life on Earth”, GA 11.
“Fully to understand the life of man and its successive stages between birth and death, it is not enough to consider only the physical body as seen by the outer senses ... At physical birth man is released from the physical integument of the maternal womb ... Now the fact is that for supersensible perception other events of this kind are undergone in the further course of life — supersensible events, analogous to that of physical birth ... For his etheric body man is enveloped by an ethereal sheath — an etheric integument — until about the change of teeth, the sixth or seventh year, when the etheric integument falls away. This event represents the 'birth' of the etheric body. After it man is still enveloped by an astral sheath, which falls away at the age of puberty — between the 12th and 16th year. The astral body in its turn is 'born.' Then at an even later point of time the I is born.
“...With the birth of the I, man's adult life begins. With the three members of the soul (Sentient Soul, Intellectual or Mind-Soul and Spiritual Soul) progressively awakened and activated by the I, he finds his proper place in life amid the prevailing world-conditions, to which he makes his own active contribution. At length however there comes a time when the etheric body begins to decline, reversing the development it enjoyed from the seventh year onward. There is a change in the functioning of the astral body. To start with it unfolded the potentialities brought with it from the spiritual world at birth. After the birth of the Ego it was enriched by all the experiences coming to it from the outer world. But now the moment comes when in a spiritual sense the astral body begins to feed on its own etheric body. It draws on the etheric body and consumes it. And in the further course of life the etheric body in its turn begins to draw upon the physical body and consume it. There facts are closely related to the physical body's degeneration in old age.
"The life of man is thereby naturally divided into three epochs. First is the time during which the physical and etheric bodies grow and develop. In the middle period the astral body and the I come into their own. The third and last is the period of bodily decline when the youthful development of the etheric and physical bodies is in a sense reversed. Now in all these events — from birth until death — the astral body is concerned. Moreover inasmuch as it is not spiritually born until the 12th to 16th year, and in the final epoch is obliged to draw upon the forces of the etheric and physical bodies, what the astral body has to achieve by virtue of its own faculties and forces unfolds at a slower rate than it would do if it were not inhabiting a physical and etheric body. Hence after death (as explained in Chapter III,) when the physical and etheric bodies have been cast off, the evolution of the astral body through the 'time of purification' takes about a third as long as the past life between birth and death.” — OCCULT SCIENCE - AN OUTLINE, chapter 7.
We have three bodies (or four if you count the spiritual ego).
Above our bodies are our three souls, and above these are our three spirits
(which are transformations of our bodies).
Central for us is the spiritual ego, which is our spark of divine human individuality.
[Chart from THE GOSPEL OF ST. JOHN, a collection of Steiner lectures
(London Reference Library, 1942), lecture 5, GA 100.]
— Compiled by Roger Rawlings