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The body (Greekσώμα soma; GermanLeib) is that fundamental member which gives a being, especially a human being, its characteristic form or shape.

„«Body» is meant to denote that which gives «shape», «form» to a being of any kind. One should not confuse the term «body» with sensuous bodily form. In the sense meant in this writing, the term «body» can also be used for that which takes shape as the soul and spirit.“ (Lit.:GA 9, p. 38f)

The body also enables the human being to perceive the world through the sense organs:

„By body is meant here that by which the things of his environment reveal themselves to man ...“ (Lit.:GA 9, p. 26f)

When one speaks of the body, one does not as a rule mean merely the physical body, for the body abandoned by life is the corpse, but one means the living body, that is, the connection between the physical body and the etheric body, which is never completely dissolved during the life of man on Earth. In a broader sense, the astral body, the bearer of desires and sensations, must also be added to the bodily existence. Rudolf Steiner refers to the astral body as the sentient soul that is united with the soul body. The latter enables, on the one hand, the stimuli received by the sense organs to be internalised into soul experience and, on the other hand, the inner soul drives to be translated into bodily movements. Together these three members - physical body, etheric body and astral body - form the body shells of the human being in which his I can attain the consciousness of himself.

„With the first ecitation of sensation, the inner self responds to the stimuli of the outer world. No matter how far one may pursue what one is entitled to call the outer world, one will not be able to find the sensation. - The rays of light penetrate the eye; they propagate within it to the retina. There they cause chemical processes (in the so-called visual purple); the effect of these stimuli continues through the optic nerve to the brain; there further physical processes arise. If one could observe these, one would see physical processes as elsewhere in the outer world. If I am able to observe the life body, I will perceive how the physical brain process is at the same time a life process. But the sensation of the blue colour, which the receiver of the rays of light has, I cannot find anywhere in this way. It only arises within the soul of this receiver. If the being of this receiver were exhausted with the physical body and the etheric body, the sensation could not be there. The activity through which the sensation becomes a fact differs essentially from the working of the life-forming power. An inner experience is lured out of this action by that activity. Without this activity there would be a mere life-process, as is also observed in the plant. Imagine man receiving impressions from all sides. At the same time, one must think of him as the source of the activity in all directions from which he receives these impressions. In all directions the sensations respond to the impressions. This source of activity is to be called the sentient soul. This sentient soul is just as real as the physical body. If a human being stands before me and I look away from his sentient soul by imagining him merely as a physical body, it is just as if I imagined only the canvas of a painting [...]

The sentient soul depends on the etheric body for its effect. For from the etheric body it brings forth that which it is to make shine forth as sensation. And since the etheric body is the life within the physical body, the sentient soul is also indirectly dependent on it. Only with a correctly living, well-built eye are corresponding colour sensations possible. Thus the physical body has an effect on the sentient soul. It is therefore determined and limited in its effectiveness by the body. It lives within the limits set by the body. - The body is thus built up from the mineral substances, animated by the etheric body, and it itself limits the sentient soul. He who has the above-mentioned organ for "seeing" the sentient soul recognises it as limited by the body. - But the boundary of the sentient soul does not coincide with that of the physical body. This soul projects beyond the physical body. One sees from this that it proves to be more powerful than it is. But the power that sets its limits emanates from the physical body. Thus, between the physical body and the etheric body on the one hand and the sentient soul on the other, there is another special member of the human being. It is the soul body or the sentient body. One can also say that one part of the etheric body is finer than the rest, and this finer part of the etheric body forms a unity with the sentient soul, while the coarser part forms a kind of unity with the physical body. But, as I have said, the sentient soul projects beyond the soul-body.“ (Lit.:GA 9, p. 39f)

„The term astral body is used here to describe what the soul body and the sentient soul are together. The expression is found in older literature and is here freely applied to that in the human being which lies beyond the sensually perceptible. In spite of the fact that the sentient soul is in a certain sense also penetrated by the I, it is so closely connected with the soul body that a single expression is justified for both when thought of as one. When the I interpenetrates with the spirit self, this spirit self appears in such a way that the astral body is reworked from the soul. In the astral body man's instincts, desires, passions, in so far as these are felt, first work; and sensual perceptions work in him. The sensual perceptions arise through the soul-body as a member of man, which comes to him from the outer world. The urges, desires, passions and so on arise in the sentient soul, insofar as this is penetrated by the inner being before this inner being has given itself to the spirit-self. When the "I" interpenetrates itself with the spirit-self, the soul interpenetrates the astral body again with this spirit-self. This is expressed in such a way that the urges, desires and passions are illuminated by what the I has received from the spirit. By virtue of its share in the spiritual world, the I has become master in the world of urges, desires and so on. To the extent that it has become so, the spirit self appears in the astral body. And the astral body itself is thereby transformed. The astral body itself then appears as a dual entity, as partly untransformed, partly transformed. Hence the spirit self in its revelation in man can be called the transformed astral body.“ (Lit.:GA 9, p. 59f)

Rudolf Steiner thus contradicts the view, still common today, that the movements of the body are triggered by the so-called motor nerves. In fact, the activity of the will arises through the direct intervention of the astral body in the metabolic-limb system; the so-called motor nerves only perceive the resulting movement or the metabolic processes connected with it.

„This scientific view - I would like to mention this for the reason that what we are now dealing with can perhaps be understood best from here - that which is believed today from the materialistic scientific view is that man has two nerves, the so-called sensitive and the motor nerves. The sensitive nerves go from our sense organs, so it is believed, or from the surface of the skin to the nerve centre, and like telegraph wires they bring there that which is sensually perceived. And then again from the nerve centre go the so-called motor nerves, the nerves of will. In a way, through a demonic entity, which of course today's science does not want to admit, and which sits in the central nervous system, that which is wired from the senses to the central system through the telegraph wire nerves is transformed in the will through the motor nerves, through the will nerves. Very beautiful theories have been devised which are even extraordinarily witty, especially the one taken from the terrible disease of Tabes, to explain this theory of the two kinds of nerves. But nevertheless this theory of the two kinds of nerves is nothing but an outgrowth of ignorance about the supersensible human being. There is - I cannot go into this here, because it would go too far, but it is precisely the Tabes disease that proves it, if one looks at it correctly - there is no difference between sensitive and motor nerves. The so-called motor nerves are only there to convey the external perceptions, just as the so-called sensitive nerves convey the internal perceptions, when we walk or when we move our arm. The motor nerves are also sensitive nerves; they are there to feel our movements themselves. And the fact that one believes that the motor nerves are the carriers of the will only comes from the fact that one is ignorant of the actual carrier of the will. One only learns to recognise him when one really practises this self-control of the will of which I have spoken. When it becomes an activity to educate oneself. When in this education one becomes independent of what the body itself does with one. Then one learns to recognise that it is not the motor nerves which produce the will, they only perceive the movements through the will, but that it is a third member of the human being, a supersensible member, that which one could call the actual soul being. In my writings I have called it the astral body, even if the expression is not yet pleasing to the present. One learns to know this supersensible member of the human being, again through a direct vision, which one acquires through this self-cultivation of the will, one learns to know this soul body, if I may call it so, as that which spiritually-soulfully underlies all movements of the will, all movements of the body. Nerves are only there to mediate the perception of movement.“ (Lit.:GA 330, p. 363ff)

Together, the physical body, the etheric body and the astral body, which penetrate each other, form the earthly body covering the higher soul and spiritual members of man. In order for the I to be able to intervene in the bodily organisation, it requires the I-bearer, which is the outer expression of the I. The I-bearer appears to the clairvoyant in the human aura as an elongated bluish ball at the root of the nose behind the forehead.

The body is transient and dissolves after death: The physical-material body is handed over to the elements, the etheric body dissolves in the etheric world a few days after death, and a large part of the astral body passes into the astral world after a longer purification phase of the human soul.

Plato still perceived the body as a dungeon or even a grave of the soul (Greekτὸ μὲν σῶμά ἐστιν ἡμῖν σῆμα to men soma estin hemin sema, literally: "The body is a grave for us."[1]), in the Oriental pre-Christian sense, whereby it could only fully develop and ascend into eternity in the body-free state after death. In Christianity, on the other hand, it is precisely the inherent and indissoluble body-relatedness of the soul that appears as its central characteristic, which makes it a truly human soul. For Thomas Aquinas, its most essential destiny, according to Aristotle's hylemorphism, is to be the form of the body (Latinanima forma corporis)[2]. It therefore only achieves its perfection through the resurrection of the body, which is made possible by the all-surpassing love and grace of God in that God himself became man in Jesus Christ, passed through death on Golgotha and rose again on the third day.

Instincts, drives and desires

Instincts, drives and desires have a will-like character and originate in the three bodily members of the being: Instincts in the physical body, drives in the etheric body and desires in the astral body.

„In the physical body the will is instinct; as soon as the etheric body takes possession of instinct, the will becomes drive. It is then very interesting to follow how in observation instinct, which one can grasp more concretely in the outer form, becomes internalised and also more unified by being regarded as instinct. Instinct will always be spoken of in such a way that, when it is found in the animal or in its weakening in man, it is imposed on the being from without; in the case of the drive it must be remembered that what expresses itself in a more internalised form also comes more from within, because the supersensible etheric body takes possession of the instinct and thereby the instinct becomes the drive.

Now man also has the sentient body. This is even more inward. It seizes the drive again, and then not only is an internalisation produced, but instinct and drive are also lifted up into consciousness, and thus desire is created. You will also find desire in the animal, just as you will find the drive in the animal, because the animal also has all these three members, the physical body, the etheric body, the sentient body. But when you speak of desire, you will have to allow yourself, quite instinctively, to regard desire as something very innermost. With the drive you speak in such a way that it expresses itself uniformly, I would say, from birth to late age; with desire you speak of something that is enforced by the soul, which is enforced more uniquely. A desire need not be characterological, it need not adhere to the soulish, but it arises and passes away. Thus desire shows itself to be more peculiar to the soul than the mere drive.“ (Lit.:GA 293, p. 66f)


References to the work of Rudolf Steiner follow Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works (CW or GA), Rudolf Steiner Verlag, Dornach/Switzerland, unless otherwise stated.
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Index to the Complete Works of Rudolf Steiner - Aelzina Books
A complete list by Volume Number and a full list of known English translations you may also find at Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works
Rudolf Steiner Archive - The largest online collection of Rudolf Steiner's books, lectures and articles in English.
Rudolf Steiner Audio - Recorded and Read by Dale Brunsvold - Anthroposophic Press Inc. (USA)
Rudolf Steiner Handbook - Christian Karl's proven standard work for orientation in Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works for free download as PDF.
  1. Gorgias 493a2-3
  2. see also: Richard Heinzmann: Anima unica forma corporis - Thomas von Aquin als Überwinder des platonisch-neuplatonischen Dualismus, in: Philosophisches Jahrbuch, 93. Jahrgang, Verlag Karl Alber, Freiburg/München 1986, p. 236ff (German)