Degradation process

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Degradation processes in the etheric body and in the physical body, which are caused by the influence of the astral body and cause a gradual, only partially reversible decay of the vital body, form the bodily basis of waking consciousness.

That consciousness is based on a process of consumption opposed to life was already recognized by the German philosopher Karl Fortlage (1806-1881), whom Rudolf Steiner also mentions. In his "Eight Psychological Lectures" (1869) Fortlage wrote:

„When we call ourselves living beings, and thus attach to ourselves a quality which we share with animals and plants, we understand by the living state necessarily something which never leaves us, and both in sleep and in waking always continues in us. This is the vegetative life of the nourishment of our organism, an unconscious life, a life of sleep. The brain makes an exception here in that this life of nourishment, this life of sleep is outweighed by the life of consumption in the pauses of waking. In these pauses the brain is exposed to a predominant consumption, and consequently falls into a state which, if it extended to the other organs, would bring about the absolute debilitation of the body or death. The state of consciousness and personality therefore comes about only when the center and the original source of our nervous power, the brain, suffers from the danger of death. However, in this way the danger of life is always advanced only as far as it is compatible with the preservation of the whole organism ...“ (Lit.: Fortlage, p. 35f)

The regeneration of what is broken down by the waking consciousness takes place partly immediately, but largely during sleep.

„The astral body, in a certain respect, during conscious life - not during sleep - is engaged in continually killing the etheric body, in continually diminishing, dulling the forces which the etheric body develops. Therefore, the expression for the life of the astral body is fatigue, the weariness of the body during the day. The astral body continually destroys the etheric body. If it would not do that, then no consciousness would arise, because consciousness is not possible without the life being destroyed again continuously step by step. This is extremely important to note. This spiritual activity - the life in the etheric world, the wonderful flaring up of life in the etheric world, which lives itself out in the most marvelous movements and rhythms, and the continuous damping of this rhythm of the etheric body by the astral body - this is that which brings forth consciousness, even the simplest animal consciousness. These spiritual processes are now expressed in the physical world in such a way that at the moment when consciousness shoots into mere life, hardening, ossification occurs in the physical body.“ (Lit.:GA 101, p. 53)

„We human beings have within us in physical relationship an ascending life and also a descending life. This, I would say, twofold current of our life is usually not sufficiently taken into account. All ascending life consists in the fact that we develop the forces of growth and those forces which propel the absorbed nutritive substances to all, even the finest, organisational members of our organism. Now, in addition to these processes, which are definitely constructive, there are others going on which are destructive, so that we constantly have degradation processes in us - this, too, is something which can only be ascertained by spiritual science, and which ordinary materialistic physiology does not yet know sufficiently today. Now, all those phenomena which dull our consciousness, which put us into total or partial sleep, are connected with the organic build-up processes. The processes of our thoughts go in parallel with the processes of decomposition in our organism, and all other mental processes such as instinctive perceptions, instinctual perceptions, which always actually put us into a depressed state of consciousness, are connected with the organically ascending processes; the actual life of thought is connected with the degradation processes. This thinking life is already so in every individual human being that it develops independently of the organism; only a degradation process, that is to say a dissociation process, must take place in the brain if thinking is to take hold in us.“ (Lit.:GA 255b, p. 335f)

„One does not understand the nature of sleep until one knows that the inner soul activity of waking in the present human cycle is after all a kind of destruction of fine structures of the nervous system. With every thought, with every impulse of will which we make on the stimulus of the outer world, we destroy finer brain structures during the whole of our waking life. We are standing here at a point where one can indeed say that in the near future it will become more and more clear to people how sleep must complement the waking life of the day; we are standing before a point where more and more in the near future natural science, which is already on the way to this, will unite with spiritual science. Natural science has already hypothetically put forward the theory that the waking life of the day represents a kind of process of destruction in the nervous system, in the finer structures of the brain. Because we thus cause destructive processes through our waking daily life, we must allow the corresponding other, the balancing process to take place within us from the time we fall asleep until we wake up. And indeed, forces are at work in us during our sleep which otherwise do not come to light, do not somehow become conscious. Forces are working to restore the finer nerve structures of our brain that were destroyed during our waking life.

Now, it is precisely through the destruction of the fine nerve structures that thoughts and processes of cognition take place within us. Ordinary everyday cognition would not be possible if destruction processes, degradation processes, did not take place from the time we wake up to the time we fall asleep. The life of sleep now means a restoration of these destroyed parts. So the opposite work takes place in our nervous system: on the one hand, during waking, a process of destruction, a breaking down; on the other hand, during sleep, a building up, a process of restoration. During sleep, forces build within us, work on rebuilding the destroyed brain structures. We become aware that the process of destruction is taking place. We actually perceive the destruction, our waking daily life is the perception of destruction processes. Because no processes of destruction take place during sleep, but processes of reorganisation, we do not perceive anything during this state either. The power that otherwise generates consciousness is used to build up. During the building up, however, the power is not perceived, because we can only become conscious through processes of destruction. There we have a cycle. Let us first take what happens during sleep.

Building up: unconsciousness, because the forces are used as building forces; breaking down: waking, consciousness, because the forces destroy, because the forces become free and do not need to build. Unconscious sleeping and conscious waking, building up and breaking down, that is one of the most ordinary cyclical courses of human life. Sleeping and waking, building and breaking down, is such a cyclical course.“ (Lit.:GA 146, p. 79f))

See also


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.