The Threefold Nature of the Human Organism[i]

An Introductory Study


By G. Suchantke, M. D.


On all hands and throughout the world one can observe a subtle change taking place in medical conceptions.  The over-emphasis of anatomical facts which arises under the influence of the general discoveries of science during the last century is giving way to a grasp of the total personality of the patient, his psychological, mental and spiritual disposition and, above all, his constitution.  The old ideas of physiology are being largely upset by the facts discovered in regard to the glands of inner secretion.  The theory of vitamins has shown how inadequate were the old ideas concerning the nutritive value of foodstuffs, based as they were on calculation of chemical composition, weight, calorific values, etc.  A human being fed on an idea diet according to these scientific theories would only not be under-nourished but would be rapidly killed. 


People today are perceiving on all hands the presence of finer influences side by side with the grossly material ones.  Finer influences and radiations are of dominant importance in the living organism.  The discovery of X-rays and radio-activity was only a beginning in this direction.  In recent times it has been growing more nd more probably that life altogether is based on such radiations.  Gurwitsch has found that radiations are involved in all vital phenomena, such as are present, for instance, in the growth of an inion root and in the growth of a human organ too.  With the most scientific methods we are here finging our way into a supermaterial realm.  Unfortunately, a real understanding of illness vanished more and more during recent decades.  Taking in real earnest the results of modern research, we must today endeavour to find our way into a real understanding of the living phenomena of the human organism on the one hand and their relation to illness and disease on the other.  Much has been done in this direction, especially in England.  I mention, for example, in our own time, the famous Dr Hutchinson, Sir Arbuthnot Lane and the layman J. Ellis Barker.  They have endeavoured on broad lines to explain hygiene by taking hold of the human personality as a whole.


                Taking our start from the studies of Dr. Rudolf Steiner, we will here attempt to look upon the human being in an all-round way and to show the fruitfulness of this mode of approach for medicine and hygiene.  To do so is all the more justified as for the last ten years in almost all parts of the world, many doctors have been working on these ideas and have achieved the most promising results.


                Let us regard the human being as a whole, not dissecting him anatomically but trying to grasp the living tendencies in him.  Let us realise all that we see in the human form and figure as the result of living processes—the shape of the hands, the form of the features, the subtle complexion of the skin.  All this is the result of processes which are constantly taking place and the final stages of which we outwardly observe.  That this is no mere empty assumption is evident from the following fact.—Only to outward appearance is the human being a creature of hard-and-fast outline as at first he seems to be.  He is involved in a constant dying and rebuilding process.  In every moment, especially during the day-waking life, bodily substance is destroyed and is built up again by nutrition.  This even goes so far that in about seven years the whole bodily substance of the human being is renewed.  Suppose you have a friend who has gone to some distant Colony and returns ten years later.  Materially speaking, apart from his teeth, scarcely anything about him has remained the same.  Materially speaking, an entirely new human being stands before you.  Nevertheless you recognise him.  Apart from minor changes he has remained the same.  Therefore the real body is in constant process of change.  The skin peels off; the hair, the nails are cut off, but the likeness of form remains.  You recognise your friend.  There is therefore a principle of form in man which holds its own over against what is in constant change.  Already at this stage, you see, quite other ideas must be developed about the nature of the human being.


                Now Rudolf Steiner has put before us the teaching of what he called the threefold division of the human organism.  This can only be understood if we apply the mobile kind of thinking of which mention has been made.  We must think of processes at work in the human organism and not of organs in the purely anatomical sense.  When we think of the outer forma nd figure of a human being, a polarity in his bodily nature is at once apparent.  At the one pole there is the head which is the bearer of the activities of the nerves-and-senses.  Eyes, ears, nose, mouth—all are active as organs of sense.  The nerve-system is concentrated in the brain and from there sends out branches as it were into the human organism.  Think of the brain and how it is composed of cells—the so-called ganglion-cells.  These are very delicately formed; their branches are like the delicate hairs of roots and those which form the nerves have particularly long, threadlike branches.  They wind through the whole organism like a mesh of finest threads.  The structure of these cells is extremely beautiful and finely chiselled.  In their totality they form the brain—veritably a wonder-structure.  Nobody could fail to marvel at the architecture of the human brain when as a medical student it is brought before him for the first time.  A truly wonderful world of form confronts him.


                But something else too is characteristic.  There is a difference between these brain-cells and the other cells of which the body is composed.  There is little vitality in the brain-cells and knowing this, doctors realise the seriousness of a brain wound, which can never really be healed.  The ganglion cells perform their functions during life but if they have once been destroyed they can never be renewed.  Their vitality is feeble, and it took a long time before science was able to discover in them the existence of any processes of metabolism.  The brain is really a half-dead organ.  In the other parts of the head, too, we find this death-tendency, for we can see how in the skull, the bony nature is predominant.  Ossification, that is to say the process of mineralisation, or the tendency to the lifeless state, reaches a kind of climax in the formation of the skull bones.  We can also say that here, in the skull of man, whether we are considering the brain itself or the predominance of the bony nature in the skull, the life-process draws into the background.  Ossification—the form-process—comes to the foreground.  This is the pole of Form in man.  We can truly admire and marvel at the arching vault of the brow and the very perfect form of the human head.  Deeper investigation reveals the fact that all form-giving processes go out from the head into the organism.


                And now let us consider the opposite pole.  In the lower part of the organism quite different processes are at work.  Here we find the organs of nutrition which prepare the foodstuffs for the nourishment of the human being.  Their activities continue on into the blood and lymph and the fluids of the body.  From here they pour into the lifeof the organs, into the limbs and so forth.  At this pole there is perpetual movement, apparently chaotic and yet wisely ordered.  The forces stream into and through each other.  Whereas in the head we saw the presence of definite form and repose, at this other pole we have restless, turbulent, pulsating life—the very opposite.  Substances are continually being destroyed and built up again, excreted and then again taken up in the food, and it is one of the most difficult tasks of modern physiologists to penetrate into this world of wonders, where all is warmth and movement.  Nowhere do we find the repose which is present in the human head.  This activity of the organism takes two directions; it passes inward to the more delicate processes of metabolism but also into the movements of the limbs which are based upon the most delicate of all these metabolic processes.  From there they pass outwards, extending over the organism.  The metabolic-limb system has thus its seat in the lower organs and in the limbs.  Here, too, is the seat of all the processes which bring about the perpetual change of bodily substance of which mention has already been made.


                But there is another point of importance here.  If we ask what kind of experience arises in the human being in these two poles of his organism, what consciousness he has of these activities, here too we find evidence of polarity.  For as we of the modern age know so well, the head, with its lifeless nature and its formative tendencies, is the bearer of waking life.  In the head we unfold our normal waking consciousness, we are wide-awake, are conscious of thoughts.  In the lower part of the organism things are entirely different.  Everything there goes on without any conscious knowledge on our part.  We know nothing of the work that is being carried on by the liver, for example.  A veil of mystery if spread over it all.  Man sleeps, as it were, in this part of his being and he can be glad that it is so, for if he becomes conscious of these organs this is a signal that the healthy balance of the organism has been disturbed.  The processes of metabolism and body-building proceed in the subconsiousness, in a region of sleep.  In the head, on the other hand, there is consciousness.  This brings us to a fact mentioned again and again by Rudolf Steiner, namely, that consciousness goes hand in hand with processes of demolition and of dying, of mineralisation.  Man’s waking consciousness is acquired at the cost of a dying process in his organism of which fatigue makes him aware.  In sleep he builds up once again what has been destroyed during the day.  This indicates that waking and sleeping are connected with the ‘head man’ on the one side and the ‘metabolic-limb man’ on the other.


                But even now we have not a complete picture of man.  We have omitted all that is connected with the organs in the breast-organisation, with heart, and lungs which play an active part in the breathing and circulation of the blood.  Here an entirely new element is manifest, the element of rhythm.  Inbreathing and outbreathing go on in rhythmic flow and this is continued on into the rhythm of the blood as measured by the pulse.  The constant relationship between the two, between respiration and the pulse, is 1 : 4.  To every breath there are 4 pulse-beats; in other words, if man draws 18 breaths a minute, there are 72 beats of the pulse to a minute.  If such is not the case, there is a disturbance in the rhythm which is invariably a symptom of illness.


                Let us for a moment consider, in numbers, the laws that emerge in connection with this relation of breath to pulse beats.  We begin with the 18 breaths a minute and now calculate the number of breaths drawn in the course of a day.  In an hour, therefore, we draw 18 X 60 breaths, that is to say, 1,080.  During the course of a day we draw 1,080 X 24=25,920 breaths.  A healthy man, therefore, draws 25, 920 breaths in the course of 24 hours.  But we find this number again if we turn to the world of stars.  At the vernal equinox the Sun stands in a definite constellation.  But in the course of time the position of the Sun changes, until finally it has passed through the whole of the twelve constellations of the Zodiac at the time of the vernal equinox and is standing once again in its first position.  Calculated in years, this progression of the Sun at the vernal equinox through the whole Zodiac is found to be twenty-five thousand and some hundred years.  This period was known as the Platonic Cosmic Year.  This shows us how precisely through the breath, through rhythm, man is linked with cosmic phenomena, especially with the Sun.  The cosmic nature of man is here revealed.  Ana many more relationships of this kind could be enumerated.


                When he inhales man takes in oxygen from the air and with this oxygen, cosmic forces.  These cosmic forces stream through his whole being until he gives himself to the Cosmos, as it were, when he breathes out.  Thus man moves between the inner realms of his body and the cosmos and the normal expression of this in his life of soul is the feeling of harmony between himself and the world.  Such a feeling may be especially strong when one looks up with wonder to the stars at night, feeling the presence of consciousness hidden in the wide spaces of heaven.  There arises within him a feeling of harmony with the cosmos, a sense of harmony in life.  But it may be said that the whole life of feeling arises in rhythm.  When we hold our breath a faint sense of oppression is perceptible, on the other hand if we breathe freely, like a peasant walking behind his plough, we feel full of strong resolution, full of courage.  The whole scale of feelings whether they be of courage or of fear or anything else, have their origin not in full waking consciousness, nor in sleeping consciousness but in a kind of dream-consciousness.  In moments of anxiety we hold our breath and in red-letter moments the heart beats joyfully.


                We have now considered the three parts or members of the being of man and have discovered their relationships with the different states of consciousness.  If now we wish to consider man’s different activities of soul, we shall associate the activity of thinking with the head; feeling with the rhythmic system.  The will has its realm of action in the metabolic system which is sunk in sleep as we have seen.  The reason why modern physiology denies the existence of a free will, is that the will originates from that region of the life of soul where man is asleep.


                Now, however, let us try to relate the being of man to the kingdoms of nature.  This brings us into the domain of a rational nutrition but also into that of therapy.  Think for a moment of the world of plants,  Plants, too, have a threefold organism.  In the plant, as well as in man, there is a pole of form, a mineral pole.  When we consider the root, how it sinks into the earth, how it absorbs salts into itself, how it remains within the earth, we have there the mineral pole.  And now think of all that is connected with the fragrant blossom and ripening seed of a plant.  There we have the other pole of its being.  The warmth and light of summer produce the fruits and seeds which are so rich in saps and contain sugar.  This corresponds in man to all that pours through the organs as the warmth contained in the metabolic processes.  Between the flower and the root we have the leaves and the stalk with the circulating fluids which rise up in the day and sink down in the night.  But this process is repeated on a wide scale in the great rhythm of the year.  For in spring the juices rise up out of the earth and bring the plants into being, whereas in the autumn the juices sink again and the plants fade and wither.  In the leaf the juices enter into relationship with the carbonic acid in the air, light and warmth, and with the help of the chlorophyll build up sugar and starch-substances in the plant.  Here again there is rhythm—a streaming, circulatory process in the plant.


                Thus we can say that in the plant too we perceive a threefold organisation just as in the case of man, only the position is reversed.  We must turn the plant the other way, with the root up above and then we see how the root corresponds to the human head, the leaf and stem processes tend, when they are applied to the human organism, to influence the rhythmic system, the lungs and the circulation of the blood; blossom and fruit are related to the metabolic-limb system in man.

                This is no mere theory.  There is an actual inner connection between the different parts of the plant and the organism of man.  If this connection is realised to the full, we have the basis for a new science of nutrition.  For if we desire to work upon the head of man, we must give him food of a rooty nature; if we desire to stimulate his metabolism, his limbs, we must give fruits—apples, oranges, melons and the like.  The lung system will be affected by leafy food.  It is at once apparent, however, how little modern theories of nutrition reckon with this fact.  In large cities, for example, the food eaten is all of one kind—no account is taken of the whole organism of a human being.  It has already been possible to prove the reality of the connections by experiment.  It is of course beyond the scope of the present lecture to speak of this in greater detail, but there are Clinics in existence now where patients are being successfully treated by special diet based on these considerations.


                Let us take an example from one of the Institutes where we are trying to heal backward children by means of Curative Education as well as by medicine.  We will take two different types.  Children of the one type have strongly outlined heads and faces; they are extraordinarily clever, with an old cleverness, but they have remained almost dwarfs in size.  They do not like being active in any way.  Their legs are small and feeble and they quickly feel the cold.  It is difficult to get them to do anything in the way of practical work.  By way of nourishment we shall be able to help such children by giving them a diet in fruits which will strengthen the forces of their limb system.


                And now another type.—These children have large, unshapely bodies.  Their limbs are heavy and difficult to control.  They are wild and boisterous, constantly screaming and throwing themselves about.  They cannot concentrate attention upon anything for one moment, or sit still, and nothing can be done with them during their lessons.  Such children can be greatly helped by a diet enriched with substances taken from the roots of plants.  If the teaching is adapted accordingly, we shall very soon find that they are beginning to think and use their mind with less difficulty.  These examples may suffice, but you will have to admit that it will be necessary to make far-reaching changes in the present mode of nutrition in the light of this knowledge.  Much, for example, can be done for the prevention of lung diseases by giving a preponderance of leafy food, green leaf vegetables.  But this leads us very far into general questions of diet.


                At this point something else too can be explained.   All over the world there exists a so-called ‘Folk-Medicine.’  It has been practiced  chiefly by simple, uneducated men who set out to find plants containing curative properties and who also know how to use these plants as remedies.  From the point of view already explained, we arrive at surprising conclusions.  It is clear that these men have been applying the laws of the relation between man and the plants out of a kind of instinct,  When they are asked for their reasons they cannot give any but their prescriptions are indicative of a certain amount of knowledge.  For instance:  the root of valerian  is prescribed when it is a question of working on the head system, of counteracting nervous conditions.  If it is a matter of influencing a disturbance in the metabolic system by a sweating cure, for instance, they use a tea made of elderberry flowers or lime flowers.  Strawberry leaves are given to rectify a weak circulation or anaemia.  Many such things might be cited.  For us, however, it is not a question of renewing what is old but of finding new paths by means of scientific knowledge.  Indeed we already have a far-reaching understanding of medicinal plants based on these relationships and one has many encouraging experiences in medical practice if the plants are used from this point of view.


                And now let us return once more to the human being and consider how illness arises.  We have tried to explain the main tendencies of man’s being and we must ask ourselves: Can we, in this light, find a fruitful way of approach to disease itself.  Let us once more remember how the form-forces of the head stand over against the fiery forces of movement in the metabolism and how a kind of balance is created in the rhythmic system.  The ideal relationship between the two poles is given in the middle age of human life.  In the old man or woman we see how the forces of youth and life withdraw more and more.  But the old man has more experience.  He can develop wisdom.  He can be wide-awake, albeit at the cost of his vitality.  Indeed the life of sleep grows less and less.  A tendency to sleeplessness can easily arise.  The old human being is over wide-awake.  If we regard it from the bodily aspect we see a solidification of the whole body taking place.  We can even measure the gradual drying-up of the human being.  He muscles and organs grow harder—more headlike we might almost say.  Thus in old-age the head-forces extend over the whole organism.  The organs of the middle man, the rhythmic man, undergo a change.  Processes of hardening and rigidification drive their way in from above..  The organs become inelastic.  In the final stage they can even contain chalky deposits.  Thus, for example, we have the picture of arteriosclerosis, a very frequent disease in our time, of which we can say two things:--In the first place, within certain limits, it is a normal symptom of the aging process.  Every human being is subject to this process when he gets beyond a certain age, nay we can even say that sclerosis is a physiological characteristic  of the human being as he grows older.  But in the second place we can also say that arteriosclerosis represents a condition of the human being where the upper or head forces force their way too far into the lower man, thereby bringing about hardenings in the blood vessel, in the muscles, etc.  What we have here said of sclerosis is to a large extent true of all those illnesses that involve a hardening process, illnesses for instance that lead to stony formations, kidney stones, gall stones, etc., also certain rheumatic illnesses and finally gout which is very widespread in England and in the West.


                Let us once more remember what was said about the nutrition of the human being and we find a further confirmation.  In Germany the consumption of meat has increased five-fold during the last hundred years under the influence of the modern idea about the need for albumen or proteins.  It became almost a question of honour for a workman to eat meat every day.  It was also far simpler to prepare a meat dish.  Arteriosclerosis increased in proportion to the increasing consumption of meat.  Indeed all hardening illnesses increased.  The stimulating forces from the metabolism which are due especially to fruits, were lacking.  The metabolism grew enfeebled and hence the forcible advance of the head forces could take place, finding its expression in these illnesses of ossification.


                Or let us take an example of another process.  In the lower part of the human body we have very compact organs—the liver, for example, or the spleen.  Also such organs as the kidneys.  On the other side towards the upper man we have spherical organs like the head, containing empty spaces, or the heart, for example, or the lung with countless tiny hollows like bubbles that become filled with air and enter into relationship with the blood.  Now we can see how the whole organism is extraordinarily dependent on the proper maintenance of this difference between the organs.  There are morbid conditions where it is no longer maintained, in cases of chronic bronchitis, for example, and in all catarrhs of the air passages.  What is a catarrh?  Secretions pour out of the air passages, phlegm is forced, abnormal processes take place in these organs, processes such as normally take place in the lower man, in the intestinal track.  Abnormal metabolic processes there take place in the organs of the middle man.  Naturally this goes hand in hand with a rise in temperature.  The warmth processes press upwards from below.  If the process goes far enough, the entire lung can change its form.  We then have the lung itself turned into a kind of metabolic organ.  It becomes liver-like in structure.  Science even speaks of the hepatisation of the lung.  Here lie the typical symptoms of pneumonia which are simply the expression of the fact hat under certain conditions processes of the lower man extend to the upper.  Here too the relation to the nutritive process is illustrated by an example on a large scale which occurred during recent times.  During the great War, very little in the way of fresh vegetables was available in Germany.  Whatever was available found its way into the food factories to be used for the soldiers.  The people lived on potatoes and dried vegetables.  They did not get sufficient leafy nourishment.  They middle man was starved.  Soon after the War, in the year 1918, there occurred a terrible epidemic of influenza.  It was especially terrible because the whole lung organisation of the patients became subject to an awful process of destruction.  It underwent a kind of auto-digestion.  It became subject to a metabolic process and large pieces of the lung were coughed up.  This was undoubtedly a consequence of many years of insufficient nourishment.  The underfed organs were so much weakened that they fell a prey to the disease.  Here too we might add many more diseases but I only wish to point out the essentials.  The essence of disease is comprehensible by looking at the play of forces, of the forming forces and dissolving, metabolic forces.  In every single organ we can study the proper and specific relation of these groups of forces.  It is different in a muscle and in a bone, different in the liver and in the lung.  Disease occurs when one part or another in these pairs of forces pushes its way into the foreground.


                How, then, shall we conceive of the healing process?  Let us take sclerosis.  Lead is the remedy.  We can study the effect of lead upon the human organism in the case of men who have much to do with lead, as in painters who use lead pigments, or in compositors.  If we observe the symptoms of this professional lead poisoning, we see a morbid process taking place which otherwise is only observed in sclerosis.  The organs harden and become brittle.  In many deaths we can see the picture of sclerosis arising in this toxic process.  Now if we bring lead, highly diluted and prepared in a definite way into the organism, therein we have an excellent remedy for the sclerosis of old age.  Rudolf Steiner indicated this many years ago, since when a large number of doctors have made successful cures in this direction.  In this example we see how a study of the processes can lead not only to an understanding of disease but also to the proper remedy.  For years past anthroposophical medicine has been engaged in developing these things for every kind of disease according to Dr. Rudolf Steiner’s indications, and our efforts have proved extraordinarily fruitful.


                But the essence of disease must also be regarded from another point of view.  We have seen that there are various stages of consciousness in the human being according to his organisation.  Towards the head of man we found the waking consciousness developed.  In the ‘metabolic and limb man’ the human being is asleep.  And wherever there is rhythm there is a dream-like life of feeling.  So too every illness represents a process which in addition to the bodily symptoms enters deeply into the conscious and less conscious life of the human being.  Ordinary Psychoanalysis is aware of this.  But it only regards the processes from the psychological aspect.  To understand what is here meant we must refer to what Dr. Rudolf Steiner said over twenty years ago in his booklet The Education of the Child in the Light of Anthroposophy.  There he describes how the young and growing human being, say in the first seven or fourteen years of his life, lives in his body quite differently than afterwards.  He is still growing.  He is building his organs.  But the point is that only when the organs are ready formed are the forces which were hitherto working formatively upon the body—working subconsciously—liberated for the conscious life.  That is why the young child sleeps so long.  Take, for example, the change of teeth.  There the child develops extremely hard mineral forms, namely the teeth.  The final dentition is driven forth into the oral cavity.  Now the actual work of formation is finished.  The forces are liberated for the more conscious activity.  What then arises?  It is memory.  Only now is the child really capable of following his lessons with forces of memory.  Of course one can force the child to memorise even before, but to do so has a harmful effect on the organs, especially the teeth.  Thus it is one of the tasks of educational theory to study in actual detail this interplay of the organ-forming forces and of the more conscious forces.  For every organ this moment occurs at a different time.  In the twelfth year, for example, the bones become fully hardened.  Not until now does the young human being use them like levers.  Now he will like to do gymnastics; now too he will begin to understand such things as the law of the lever.  The teacher should take this into account.  He should not bring such a law to the child at an earlier age.  It is a most fascinating thing to work in the educational methods founded by Dr. Rudolf Steiner.  To work with the children on the basis of a real understanding of these relationships is all essential.  And it is of decisive significance for the bodily health of the pupils in their later life. 

Rudolf Steiner pointed out the essential relation that  happens to the child between the ages of seven and fourteen and the consequences that ensue between the ages of thirty-five and forty-two.  If, for example, the child between the ages of seven and fourteen was taught in an abstract way, without regard to these inner connections, he or she will at this later age tend to suffer from rheumatism and gouty illnesses.  We have been able to observe this in the histories of many patients and in great detail.  What is it, however, that works itself out in such a fact?  What is involved when a child finds his teacher and receives instruction which either makes him healthy or sick in later life?  Destiny is here at work.  Destiny is at work above all in the environment, as in his parents’ house and in the school that he does not select for himself.  We come here to the intimate connection of disease with the destiny of the human being.  We know through Rudolf Steiner that a human being’s destiny is not a matter of mere undefined chance.  It is connected with the fact of repeated lives on earth.  The human being lives on earth more than once.  He has to undergo an earthly life repeatedly.  The fact of reincarnation here emerges. 


Destiny from repeated lives on earth works itself out especially in disease.  That is why people so often say: Why must just this human being have become so ill, seeing that he was always so good?  The fact is that ordinary, everyday thinking which only takes into account what happens between birth and death cannot take hold of the full reality.  Disease is connected with the deepest secrets of the human being.  Hence it has become so inexplicable to modern thinking.  The ancient world-conceptions knew of this fact.  We find them all in agreement—ancient Indians, Egyptians, nay even on into the Middle Ages.  The need is for our modern time once more to develop a way of thinking that reaches into these domains.  The paths have been given to us through the Anthroposophy of Rudolf Steiner, leading to a real grasp of the human being in sickness and in health.  A true art of healing can only arise when these facts are taken into account.  It is not a question of looking up old writings or the like.  The way must be found out of thepresent situation. Therefore the modern doctor will gladly concur with and accept all true results of science.  Nevertheless he will only be able truly to heal when he has the courage to find his way to a spiritual-scientific world-conception.  Then too he will approach the questions of destiny and reincarnation.  These very questions will give rise in him to a mood of soul from out of which alone the real will to healing can be born.  When the doctor speaks about health and illness in this mood, a hygiene will arise based not on the mere fear of bacteria and other modern spectres but leading into the deeper mysteries of the being of man and thence to the art of healing.



[i] From a public lecture delivered in Edinburgh and Leeds, May, 1930.

From ANTHROPOSOPHY, A Quarterly Review of Spiritual Science,No. 3.  Michaelmas 1930        Vol. 8.