Why Reincarnation?

The Golden Blade, 1979, pp. 33-44

You may have found the title of this address rather sensationally interrogative. It has the advantage however that it can be taken in two different ways. It can be taken as meaning: Why should any sensible person interest himself in anything so fantastic and unprovable as reincarnation? It can also signify: Why would it be a good thing if a good many sensible people did so? I propose to deal with both these questions, and to deal with them separately.

If one tries to take a sort of birds-eye view of the mind of humanity as a whole, one does find that a conviction to the broad effect that one individual has more than one life on earth is a very persistent ingredient in it. I think this is true, whether the bird in question is surveying humanity as a spatially distributed whole at the present moment – or as a historical whole in time. In our own time, the anthropologists seem to turn it up in almost every part of the globe that has remained unaffected by Western civilisation. As one or the other variant of Hinduism or Buddhism, it pervades the whole of the densely populated Far East.

Historically, even in the West, when the human mind first became self-conscious as doctrine and philosophy, the notion of reincarnation was very strong in it. One thinks for example of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, of the teaching of Pythagoras and its development by Plato. It is there in Zoroastrianism. Systems such as Taoism and Confucianism, which do not emphasise it, nevertheless allow of it. But I am not here to tabulate. What I do suggest as fairly obvious is, that if the bird already referred to were to combine his spatial and his temporal perspectives and, from somewhere outside it, to survey the inhabited earth (the “oecumeme”, as the Greeks called it) as a sort of tapestry of beliefs about the invisible world (let us suppose him doing it in the future, say 1000 years from now) he would see it as woven in a very large measure out of a belief in reincarnation. True, he would see one large hole in the tapestry – the hole being 2000 years or so of that part of the oecumene which is covered by one of four widespread systems of belief – either Judaism or Christianity or Islam or Materialism. It is a large hole, and a very important one. It raises for instance the question of the supposed incompatibility between belief in reincarnation and belief in Christianity – which I shall not have time to go into this evening. A large hole in itself, but by comparison with the size of the whole tapestry, not so very large. Everywhere else – you cannot quite say Quod semper, quodubique, quod ab omnibus; but everywhere else – this tenacious conviction concerning some form or other of reincarnation.

Some form or other. Much turns on that, and I will return to it in a moment. Meanwhile I hope I have shown good reason why a sensible man who is interested in the world around him, and behind him, and its relation to reality, and who is not minded to hide his head in a bag, can really hardly avoid being at least interested in the subject.

If he does begin to interest himself in it, and to enquire a little into details, I suppose the first thing he discovers is the extraordinary number of different forms it has taken and still takes, this belief in reincarnation – forms so widely divergent from each other that he may well begin to doubt whether there is really any justification for grouping them together under a single label at all. It is a far cry, for example, from the system that characterises one variant of Buddhism – which is often referred to as reincarnation – a better name is probably “Karma” – and which is really no more than an application of the principle of causality to the relation between particular earlier human life and one particular later one – to the notion of a so-called Transmigration of Souls, or Metempsychosis, that takes in not only human beings but animals – and even plants. In some communities there is a fixed belief that the soul returns to earth always in the body of one of its physical descendants. Some suppose a long interval of time between one earthly birth and another; others imagine the soul transferred to a new body at the instant of death. And so on. You have in fact a vast array of beliefs, some of them very fantastic, at all events in our eyes, some of them less so, and many of them quite incompatible with each other. Nevertheless the term “Reincarnation” can, I think, justly be used as a category label; inasmuch as they all have that one element in common: for one person, or at all events for one psychic entity, more than one life as a physical body on earth.

Confronted with this historical and even social phenomenon, it seems to me that a sensible man who is at the same time open-minded – and, after all, if he is not open-minded he is not really very sensible – is bound to ask himself this question: leaving aside the intricate variety of its manifestations, how do we account for this one kernel of conviction which they all have in common? How did it originate? Is it just an aberration that has gone on repeating itself in different times and places, and in some places has persisted through thousands of years? Something for which there is no reason? There is tradition of course, but tradition can only preserve, it cannot originate. Does it originate as a mere invention of human fancy or do its persistence and its ubiquity betoken a deeper source altogether, call it what you will, a sub-conscious intuition, an instinctive wisdom, a non-scientific knowledge, innate in the structure of the human spirit?

One thing is clear. If it was some kind of knowledge that it came from in the first instance, it must have been a very inaccurate kind of knowledge. The incompatibility between the different forms in which it has found expression makes that clear. If there is a kernel of truth behind them, there is obviously also any amount of superstition and error among them. Is it by any chance possible to winnow the truths from the errors?

I have just used the expression “inaccurate knowledge”, and you may think that was a contradiction in terms. I shall not be surprised if you do; because – and here you must allow me a fairly lengthy digression – it is an outstanding characteristic of our age that we demand accuracy as an absolute condition of knowledge – if not indeed as the very substance of it. What is not known accurately, we feel, is not knowledge at all; it is mere speculation. It is from that conviction that the word “Science” gets its contemporary meaning, and on which modern science rests its reputation. We may think it is a well-deserved reputation, and we shall be right. But we are not obliged to forget that it is a very recent conviction among men – one that dates from about the 17th or at earliest the 16th Century of our Era. Putting it loosely: one that dates from the Scientific Revolution, or a little before it. Moreover, anyone interested in the history of ideas will have noticed that this increasing emphasis on accuracy went hand in hand with another change in the general attitude towards what constitutes knowledge. I mean a more and more exclusive concentration on the evidence of the senses, as being the only possible source of knowledge – of any knowledge that is not mere speculation: in other words a more and more conscious limitation of the field available to knowledge to all that in the universe for which the generic term is “matter”.

Previously it had not been so, for the simple reason that this sharp distinction we make between Material and Immaterial, between Matter on the one hand and Mind or Spirit on the other, was not clearly perceived and felt, as we today perceive and feel it. No doubt it was already being felt more and more clearly before his time, but it was the philosopher Descartes who first formulated that distinction in his famous dichotomy between Extended Substance on the one hand and Thinking Substance on the other. On that dichotomy the whole of modern science – if we exclude a few advanced philosophical Physicists – is firmly based. Meticulous observation of any data presented to the senses, the formation of hypotheses to account for them, the verification or falsification of those hypotheses by prediction and experiment, statistical organising of any data for which the hypotheses fail to account – such is broadly speaking the method of cognition, which has developed since the Scientific Revolution; and it is a method in which accuracy has become all in all. Avoidance of an error takes undisputed precedence of any inaccurate divination of a truth.

Its advantages are obvious enough; and it is really only during my own lifetime that certain concomitant disadvantages have begun to be at all heavily stressed. One of these is, that, if you think it through, you will find this method involves in the end the reduction of all Qualities to Quantities. Everything in our experience that comes under the heading of quality – light, sound, colour, beauty, ugliness and so forth, and indeed pretty well everything that we actually experience, as distinct from merely inferring it – must be reduced, and thus transformed, into quantitatively measurable (or ponderable or numerable) material, before we can be said to know about it. It is a growing realisation of this particular disadvantage, I think, which has produced a tendency I have noticed in the vocabulary of those who are interested in these matters to substitute the word “Reductionism” for the older term “Materialism”.

This has proved, as I warned you, a long digression from my principal topic. But it is really a very necessary one. Why am I here at all, speaking to you under these auspices? I am here because Rudolf Steiner is, as far as I have ever discovered, the only thinker who has made a certain very important observation concerning the Scientific Revolution and its place in history. Its major significance, he said, for the future of mankind lay, not in the contribution it has made up to now to the general sum of knowledge of ourselves and the world about us, though it certainly has made a very important contribution to that (since knowledge of quantities is certainly knowledge); but precisely in its novel emphasis on accuracy. And the real importance of this determined pursuit of accuracy lay, not in the results it was to achieve – and has since achieved – but rather in itself; in itself as a habit of thinking, or rather as a new kind of activity in thinking, a new kind of self-consciousness in thinking.

What we call the Scientific Revolution, then, was characterised by those two outstanding features: on the one hand, exclusive attention to the material realm; on the other, a new self-consciousness in accuracy. The second was correlative to the first and could not have come about without it. But now that it is there, this faculty of accurate attention – well, it is there. And there is no reason (Steiner insisted) why it should go on for ever being confined to the material realm. Moreover, if it should go on being so confined, the only real contribution it can offer to humanity will be an increasing precision and ingenuity in technology. And this does seem to be what is happening. Scientist and Engineer have already become less and less distinct from one another – at least in the domain of Rocketry – and already there are not wanting those who maintain that there is no real distinction between technology and knowledge itself.

If on the other hand the same self-consciously accurate mental activity – not, you understand, the restricted methodology that has so far been based on it, but the psychological core of the method – should now be brought to bear, not only on the material realm, but also on the immaterial, it will be a different matter. As far as knowledge is concerned, the immaterial realm is the domain of inaccuracy. Or it has been up to now. We have known it only as the domain of myth, mystery-teaching, revelation, tradition, wisdom – and also of superstition, fancy and fiction – all of which played into the method of pre-Cartesian science, to confuse it. Yet if it is knowledge we have in mind, and not merely technology, we must concede that they also enlighten it. They at least preserved its field from growing ever narrower and narrower. Above all, pre-Cartesian science, by contrast with modern science, was a Science of Qualities as well as Quantities. Science could continue to include qualities in its field, precisely because that sharp distinction between material and immaterial had not yet been apprehended. For quality is both material and immaterial. It is at the same time objective Fact and subjective Experience. Nevertheless it can be not only experienced but known, and (as Goethe pointed out long ago) accurately known. Only it requires a different kind of accuracy from the kind that can only be applied to quantities – something that could perhaps be called “perceptual accuracy” – the kind of accuracy that poets and artists still have to develop for their own ends. And this kind of accuracy (if men succeed in developing it) can be applied not only to the material realm – for instance in the cognition of qualities – but also to that wholly immaterial realm which Cartesian science itself has trained us to discriminate so antiseptically from anything material.

There are really three aspects of Steiner’s life work, which can be considered separately. In his very early publications he sought to establish, on purely philosophical grounds, the bare possibility of such an accurate cognition not only of qualitative nature, but also of the immaterial reality in which all quality participates. Any accurate cognition can properly be termed a science. By definition that kind of cognition could not be Cartesian science (which is what the word “science” by itself has come to denote), and therefore he called it “spiritual science”. The other two aspects belong more to the later part of his life. On the one hand he expounded in much detail the kind of training and self-development that is needed by those who seek to develop the perceptual accuracy of which I have spoken. On the other hand he developed it to a very high degree in himself. I should perhaps add that all three of these aspects are connoted by the label “Anthroposophy”, but that in sheer quantity it is the third which predominates; and very much of the literature of Anthroposophy consists of a quantity of books and a vast body of transcripts of lecture-cycles, in which he endeavoured to communicate to others the facts, relating to both the material and the immaterial realm and, above all, to the relation between the two, which his own highly developed faculty had enabled him to perceive. I am simply stating all this as fact, not because I assume everyone agrees with it, but because it is not my purpose this evening to argue the validity of such a statement. I have tried to do that elsewhere on occasion, but all I am now concerned with is its bearing on the topic of reincarnation.

So now – to resume after the digression – whatever else it is, or purports to be, a doctrine – any doctrine – of reincarnation is an account of transitions from the material to the immaterial realm, and vice versa. It was inevitable therefore that Steiner should have much to say about that among other things. There was, by his own account, no question of any picking and choosing from among that welter of beliefs of which I spoke at the beginning. He simply reported what he actually perceived. I believe it is just because his pronouncements on the subject were not the product of any eclecticism or syncretism that a slowly increasing number of people in many different parts of the world (of whom I am one) are well assured that those perceptions of his do have the effect of winnowing the truths within that welter from the falsities.

You may think it a little abrupt, but what I am now going to do is to enumerate, quite baldly and very briefly, three or four of the features that characterise Rudolf Steiner’s teaching on this subject. If it is a little abrupt, there are nevertheless two good reasons for it. In the first place you are presumed to have come here at all, because you want to hear some more about Rudolf Steiner. And in the second place it will lead into the second, and shorter, part of my lecture; in which I shall attempt to answer the alternative interpretation of the brute question, Why Reincarnation – according to which it signifies: why would it be a good thing if more and more people did come to believe in it?

In the first place, then, the entity which he presented as experiencing more than one life on earth, was a trans-personal one. It is not the personality familiar to himself and his friends – and which the more trendy educationalists think it so important that he should be encouraged to “express” – but the core of a man’s being, of which he is normally unconscious, that passes from one life to another. Earthly personality is more like a shadow, or mirror-image, of the ultimate Self (for which Steiner used the term “Ego”). And it is rather what the ego has made of that personality during one particular lifetime that will be transmitted to the new personality it will assume – or build – or grow – in a subsequent one. Putting it more briefly, it is the spirit and not the soul, that is born again.

Secondly, there are indeed relations of a causal nature between one life and another, and in this case Steiner normally used the oriental term. There is in fact a moral law of “Karma” that obtains in the immaterial realm, just as the law of gravity does in the material one. I cannot go into the many differences which nevertheless distinguish his presentation of Karma from the characteristically oriental one. I will only mention that with him – as perhaps generally with the idea of Karma, where it has reappeared in the West – the emphasis was mainly on the future rather than the past. Not the gradual elimination of the individual spirit’s apostasy and its eventual extinction in Nirvana, but the continual enhancement of that individual being from life to life.

Thirdly – and here, by contrast, his treatment of the subject departs very far from anything that I at least have found elsewhere – the experiences undergone by the spirit between one life and another – its experiences, that is, in the spiritual world – are presented as being at least as important as its experiences during its incarnation on earth. He often dealt with them in great detail.

More specifically – and it was his habit to be very specific indeed, both on this and on other subjects – the normal length of the period that elapses between one incarnation and another is of the order of 1000 years. It is a norm that is often widely departed from – as is of course the case with life on earth; where, although the norm is, say, threescore years and ten, plenty of human beings die before they are three years old, and quite a few live on to ninety or even a hundred.

Finally, it is again normal – though here again only in the qualified sense I have just emphasised – for an incarnation as a man to be followed by an incarnation as a woman.

Such a bald and abstract summary gives, I fear, no real impression of what it is like to read Rudolf Steiner on Reincarnation and Karma – of the manner, for instance, in which he illustrated their process by particular historical developments, and indeed in the lives of particular historical individuals. Anyone who wants the substance rather than the mere shadow I have sketched, would have to read for himself. I have risked it only because I want now to go on to the rest that I have to say. And, before doing so, I must make clear what I am not saying. I am not saying that, because it looks as if it would be a fine and healthy thing if a lot of people came to believe something, therefore it must be true. I am merely passing on a reflection which has been borne in on me more and more forcibly during the last few years. After all, thought is free, and there can be no harm in my sharing such reflections with you, supposing you are willing to listen. If the majority of people were to become convinced of reincarnation, as I have just outlined it, as a fact, what an enormous difference it must make to many of the discords that are at present threatening to tear our civilization to pieces!

Take for instance the Women’s Liberation movement. Well, there is first of all the rather obvious and crude reflection that the emotions of a woman confronting a male chauvinist pig could hardly help being considerably modified by a firm conviction that the said pig will himself in all probability be born as a woman a little later on in the course of evolution. But I am not thinking of that so much as of the narrow and jaundiced view of the past history of mankind which the movement seems to engender in its more enthusiastic adherents, and of the bitterness that results from it. Historical judgements are one thing; personal bitterness is another. The judgements need not be affected. Women, let us say, have always been the oppressed sex. But the bitterness, the venom in it comes of the speaker identifying herself with her sex as a whole, both now and in the past. Whereas, if she is aware that, in the core of her being, she is as much masculine as feminine, she is free to identify herself not with an artificial class consisting of all women living and dead (which is after all a numerical abstraction) but with Humanity as a whole; which I would say is a reality and not an abstraction at all; and which is in any case not a divisive concept, like that of sex.

I am thinking of course of conviction and not of a half-hearted belief in reincarnation. I am thinking of a state of mind that would take its truth for granted in much the same way as most people, under the present dispensation, take for granted the Lyell-Darwin-Freud model of the past history of the earth and humanity. Perhaps I can make more vivid the sort of difference I feel that would make with the help of an impossible analogy. Suppose a man who was well-up in all such things as geology and physics, but who for some reason or other had never heard that there is such a thing as sculpture. And now suppose that, in the course of some digging operation or other, he unearths a marble statue. He wonders about its peculiar shape and about the whole nature and origins of the object before him, and starts to form theories about them. But owing to the defect in his knowledge which we have supposed, these theories can only take the form of more and more elaborate hypotheses about the geological adventures of marble in the remote past, and perhaps the operation of climatic changes on it in the more recent past and in the present. And now, if you will imagine the difference it must make to such a man to learn that, in addition to the substance marble, there is such a thing as sculpture, and that in addition to the history of marble, there is a separate history of the art of sculpture, it may help you to see what I am driving at. You have only to substitute for the statue the idea of homo sapiens that prevails in the minds and imaginations of most sociologists – and indeed in the minds of most men and women in the West of our time.

I believe that it would affect profoundly the relation of every man jack (or woman jill) both to himself (or herself) and to his fellow human beings. I see it operating as a kind of disinfectant, inasmuch as it would tend to substitute the right kind of identification for the wrong. Especially when that is extrapolated into history. A good example of what I mean by the wrong kind of identification would be what it called “class-consciousness”. There is nothing more abstract than a class. In fact, it is almost the abstract word. “Class” and “member of a class” are the terms employed by modern logicians, in preference to the older terms “genus” and species”, precisely because they do not admit any immaterial unity underlying a collection of similar individuals. The collective noun Lion means simply the numerical sum of all the individual lions that have been, are, or will be. Now there is no doubt a real underlying unity there, when a man emotionally identifies himself with his ancestors – inferior, if you like, but real. But there is no underlying reality, only a fancied and artificial unity, when a poor and despised man, or a rich and honoured one, in the twentieth century identifies himself emotionally with “his” class in, let us say, the fourteenth century – a fancied and artificial unity, which has no real significance beyond the part it can play in superheating animosity. I do not see why the pricking of that bubble should discourage anyone from struggling just as hard as before to reform the evils and injustices that oppress the present; but I do feel it would take much of the personal venom out of the struggle, if it became habitual to think of history and our relation to it as embodying not only the development of groups and movements and their relation to each other, but also our own previous lives on earth; if we identified with the thought of them, as least as well as with the groups and movements.

Whatever group or association a person may feel identified with – or choose to identify himself with – there can be no identity more real than his identity with his own existential kernel – a kernel which transcends divergences of race and nation and sex as absolutely as it must obviously close the so-called “generation gap”. In the case of race – and in a different way of nationality – there is of course a real underlying unity between the individual and his community, including the past history of that community. And it is most unfortunate that well-meant attempts to legislate it away, with the persistent emphasis on the topic which that entails, tend rather to enhance than to diminish the awareness of that unity and a consequent relapse into it.

People today – and maybe this applies especially to the young – do seem in a peculiar way – obscurely and half-consciously – to be groping after the roots from which they spring. The growing appeal of Archaeology, far outside professional circles is, I would say, one symptom of it, and I suspect that the startling success of Alex Haley’s book Roots, and of the film based on it, may be another. For that, and those other reasons I have tried to adumbrate, I can see almost no bounds to the healthful changes in the face of society that might come about, if most of its members should acquire an abiding sense of their spiritual root – of a spiritual heredity and their cultural inheritance – an awareness, let us say, of the sculpture as well as of the marble.

In conclusion I feel disposed to modify a little the disclaimer with which I began this second and more speculative part of my address. You may remember I emphasised that I was not arguing that, because a belief would be beneficial, it must be true. Nor am I. But that is not to say that the two propositions have no bearing at all on each other. Quite apart from Jamesian pragmatism, at this sort of metaphysical depth I feel they are related. Either the universal process in which we are caught up is a mere fortuitous concourse of atoms, or it is in some way meaningful, morally as well as physically. And if the latter, then a hypothesis which it would be morally healthful for humanity to accept must, I think, be judged, more likely to be true than its contradictory.

Owen Barfield