Etheric Forces – Lawrence Edwards and Charles Waterman

The Golden Blade Journal – 1951

An Approach to Contemporary Questions in the Light of Anthroposophy

Article Source :

Descartes, the father of modem materialism, started his philosophy from the principle of Doubt — the moment I begin to think, I doubt! But when Descartes had fought his way through his doubts he came to a view of truth, of a world pursuing its endless course of change, of growth and decay, only through the mechanical movement of its various parts and particles; let us examine every substantial part of our world, its mass and its movement and the laws governing it, and we shall have found the truth.

The philosophers of the ancient world, in the centuries before Christ, would have answered very differently. They looked at the beings and creatures of their world and the wisdom that was woven into the texture of all things, and they said, “Within and behind the tapestry of this world there is Mind, active living intelligence; from this, and from this alone, come the beauty and the splendour this speaks to us out of all things; this is Logos; this is truth.”

But let us return to Descartes and the Age of Doubt. It is hard for us, with three hundred years of materialistic science behind us, to realise just how revolutionary and incredible his teaching seemed. When he said that if one were able to gain a thorough knowledge of all the parts of a seed, one would be able to deduce with mathematical certainty all the qualities of the living organism that was to grow from it, he was orienting humanity to a completely new direction of thought [1]. That one should hold in one’s hand a seed, insignificant and shrivelled dry, and yet should find within the substance of this shrunken piece of matter the forces and the wisdom which would produce the final glory of the blossom—this surely ranks among the most astonishing statements that the world has heard.

Let us not argue for the moment whether it is true or false; let us just see it in this light; it is fantastic. It is a statement that bids fair to rank with the strangest incidents of ancient mythology or the most extravagant aspects of Einstein’s world. It is the kind of thing that the White Queen used to believe each morning before breakfast. Small wonder, then, that so many of Descartes’ contemporaries were shocked into opposition.

It shows how strongly human destiny was leaning in this direction that, in spite of this, such ideas gained ground. Slowly but surely the Western world was swayed into belief, and a new era in human development had begun. The physical world was to be explained through itself alone; nothing that could not be weighed or measured would be admitted as partaking of objective reality; out of the nature of substance itself should be found the causes for the complexity and glory of all nature. It is strange to observe with what ardour of materialism the quest was started; progressively finer and more selective became the experiments of the scientists; if only one could reach the smallest and simplest pieces of matter possible and understand them, one would possess a key to the whole natural world! The search for the atom had begun. Within only a few years even the nature of light, that most ethereal of all physical phenomena, reluctant though it showed itself to submit to any form of accurate measurement, had been forced into the common corporeality.

But this was too much, even for so materialistic a time. The corpuscular theory, which regarded a ray of light as consisting of a stream of minute particles, had soon to be dropped and a theory of wave motion put in its place. Even this caused as many difficulties as it solved, for if light were a series of waves, there must be some universal medium in which they could travel, and so the ether had to be invented. The word “ether” was indeed not new, but the concepts attached to it were completely so and arose simply out of the needs of the theories of that day [2]. True to the spirit of the time, the ether was conceived of quite materialistically, with mechanical and physical properties like other substances; the only reason it could not be perceived by the senses was its extreme rarefaction.

And so we see the start of man’s first, and possibly also his last great adventure into materialism. With what high hopes the road was taken; the way was still far to seek, and many years must elapse before the goal was reached, but surely, surely as the sun must rise and set, man was on the right track; he would go on and on—nothing could stop him now—and one day he would arrive one day he would understand each smallest atom, and then the secrets of physical nature would be laid open to him.

And how have we fared, after three hundred years on the road? Well, progress has not been steady as our fathers expected, it has continued with ever-increasing acceleration, until to-day we are presented with one of the most astounding pictures of the world that the mind of man has ever conceived. One has but to dip into any popular account of modern physics to feel, for the moment, that one is delving into the very secrets of existence; the inner nature of substance itself seems to be dissected and conveniently laid out for one’s inspection. Here they all are : the neat little diagrams showing the structure of a crystal, with all the atoms standing accurately in their ranks and files, like an army of soldiers in formation; the pictures of the more complex molecules composed of so many atoms each all holding hands in such beautiful patterns and in so friendly a manner. And then there are those minute solar systems, the atoms themselves, with their circling electron worlds, and protons and positrons and neutrons, and abstruse mathematical equations—the processes and the inhabitants of the atomic world increase too quickly for the common man to keep up with them.

But we seek to pursue our enquiries further still; we ask of a physicist just what all this amounts to; what are these whirling specks of worlds? And now the answers carry us farther and farther away from any ordinary realm of understanding. We might hear talk of wave packets or energy states or electrical densities and. similar occult terms, and if we then complain, “But I don’t understand. What is a wave packet, and how can I imagine one packet of waves revolving round another ?” One can almost hear the answer coming back, a life impatiently now, perhaps: “But you really must not be so naive. You must not imagine that these little pictures are real; no-one supposes that atoms would really look like that, even if it were possible to see one; all the truth that we have discovered lies in the mathematical equation itself; the pictures and the diagrams are only crutches, necessary because the human mind requires them.”

What then are these nuclei and electrons ? It seems that it does not matter a great deal what we call them, waves, energy, electrical density, all such concepts are nothing but a crude substitute for the reality, which is a purely mathematical one. So far have we travelled from the naive atom of Sir Isaac Newton, “. . . solid, massy, hard, impenetrable, movable particles … so very hard as never to wear or break to pieces; no ordinary power being able to divide what God himself made one in thie first creation.” So far have we travelled that the mind of man can now handle these most abstruse calculations with superb confidence; all is understood, every process of calculation, all but the final result—this remains the enigma. The world has been reduced to a series of mathematical equations of which the terms are no longer quantitatively unknown —but their significance has become unknowable.

So far have we travelled that a noted scientist could recently announce over the wireless that physics to-day has relinquished its centuries-old ideal of discovering the nature of things. Science has become a science of correlation and prediction alone; given a certain set of circumstances we can calculate with mathematical accuracy the probability that a certain effect will follow; beyond this we do not seek to go.

That the equations of modem physics, in their own cold way, represent a reality—this one can hardly doubt; and they can be
interpreted with disastrous accuracy. The vast mushroom of smoke that rose over Hiroshima came as a dramatic vindication of a great predictive science; but the eternal question of the nature of things remains unanswered. One can only stand in amazed contemplation of a science which has developed such power, such complexity and such consistency, and yet can be so empty of any real inner content.

So we see the end of a great search drawing near—the search for pure substance, matter untouched by any sort of spiritual element. Stage by stage, solid substance has melted away between our fingers; irresistibly the trend has been away always from the tangibly material; and these equations, these end-results, with such tenuous concepts hesitatingly applied to them, no longer represent any sort of sense-perceptible reality; they are things of the mind, to be grasped only by the mind. We began with matter, and we have been driven to something very much like spirit, a spirit barren and devoid of real content perhaps, but still spirit.

And now we have to ask ourselves whether we have not, these last few centuries, been marching down a wrong road. Did we perhaps start with a completely wrong premise in the first place when we though that matter could ever be conceived per se ? Have we not seen that such an investigation is doomed to ultimate failure, whatever by-products of advantage and disaster it may bring in its train ? And how should we start anew ?

We have tried beginning with matter alone, and our results appear to be cancelling one another out, so let us begin with matter and spirit. We must use our terms accurately; for the moment we mean by matter all that which is sense-perceptible, and by spirit all that of the world which by its essential nature requires to be grasped by other means. Let us not argue for the moment whether matter and spirit are separate, or interpenetrate one another, or are in fact two polar aspects of one reality. Our consciousness divides them thus, and thus let us begin.

Let us consider a plant; let us see it in its entirety, in time as well as in space, in root and leaf and petal, in seed and in space, in root and leaf and petal, in seed and in sprouting, in blossom and decay. onceive of the seed without the blossom which is to proceed from it, how we cannot understand the blossom unless we know of the seed which is to be formed within it. Now let us bow to the dictates of an analytic science; let us pull it to pieces, carefully. Carefully, so that not one speck of matter shall be lost. There ! – we have done it; all is there, all – except the living being of the plant itself; that, the most important thing, is irretrievably lost. If some denizen of another world were to come, we could show him all the parts, we could explain most carefully how each fitted to each, but never in a hundred years could he, from this alone, build up even an idea of the living organism that we call a plant. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts; as soon as we come to the realm of life the primary axioms of Euclidean space are affronted !

Where then was the reality of the plant ? Was it there in the bright-hued blossom before we pulled it to pieces? Were not the seed-time and sprouting-time also of significance? Must we not say that the reality, “Plant,” includes all the phases of its growth ? How can we possibly select one point in its development and say, “This is the whole; this is the reality” ? But this wholeness is beyond the sense-realm; never can it be fully present in physical existence at any moment; never can we see it with our eyes or feel it with our hands; it is of the nature of spirit. This it is which clothes itself with matter, first in one phase of its being and then in another; it is indestructible and unbound by the normal laws of space; it can manifest in two or a thousand places simultaneously; this it is which reappears year by year; the vestiments change but the essential reality remains.

It is this reality which makes possible any description of a plant by which it could be recognised in succeeding years; if it did not exist each individual specimen of a species would have to be described by and for itself. If it were to be urged that because this reality cannot be weighed and measured, it is not in fact real, then all our text-books of biology are full of phantom unrealities and the subject were better not studied.

From this point of view—having recognised that a living plant cannot be understood in terms only of its sense-perceptible parts — we can now approach Rudolf Steiner’s use of such terms as “etheric forces”, “etheric body” and “etheric world”. He spoke of etheric forces also as “formative forces” and “life-forces”; they are active in form-giving and life-building processes throughout the kingdoms of nature, but their influence is particularly evident in the growth of living organisms, and it is here, perhaps, that science comes
most nearly into touch with them.

The extraordinary development of a living creature from a fertilised cell has been studied intensively for many years; a great deal has been learnt about its details and very much remains unknown. One of the most difficult questions concerns the means “whereby the various organs, as they grow, assume not only their characteristic forms but their proper disposition in space, so as to accord with the shape and structure of the whole [3]. They behave as though they were being shaped and guided in conformity with a pre-existent pattern. A few biologists, in seeking to account for this process of harmonious ordering, are inclining to talk tentatively of “fields”, somewhat akin to magnetic or electrical fields, whereby space is as it were impregnated with energy-patterns of varying potential which enfold and act upon the multiplying cells.

Here, perhaps, in this conception of enfolding energy-fields, science can be seen feeling its way towards the necessity of postulating forces which we might regard as a reflection in physical terms of the real “formative forces”— the etheric forces which play into the midst of a growing organism from out of its cosmic environment.

By the time an organism has reached maturity, its ethefic forces are organised into an “etheric body”, interpenetrating and surrounding the physical body. Plants and animals and men are all clothed upon with this life-body; to it is added, in animals, the astral body, the vehicle of feeling; and in men the astral body and the ego organisation, the vehicle of the ‘I’.

It need not seem very strange, from the point of view of modern science, to think of the etheric body as a body of forces; science nowadays is accustomed to think of organised force-patterns as the foundation of solid matter.  The etheric body may be conceived as being woven from force-currents on a different level of existence, a level closed to ordinary sense-perception but open to clairvoyant sight.

A vividly detailed description of how the etheric body, in certain of its aspects and functions, appears to clairvoyant sight is given by Dr. Steiner in the foregoing lecture. But he emphasises— and this is the lecture’s central purpose—that in much the same way as we cannot begin to understand the nature of matter, whether dead or alive, without penetrating behind it to the formative forces which organise it, so we cannot understand the etheric body without penetrating behind it into yet other realms. Just as the physical body is maya, illusion, not what it seems, to ordinary sight, so is the etheric body maya to clairvoyant sight. The clairvoyant, if his vision is able to penetrate so far, finds that’ flowing into the human etheric body, from out of the cosmic ether-ocean, are streams of—
as it were—warmth and light and music; and these again are found to be manifestations of Beings, the Spirits of Form, the Exusiai. Behind the forms of nature are the formative forces; behind the formative forces are the creative thoughts of the Second Hierarchy.

ln other lectures Dr. Steiner speaks of the etheric forces and the etheric world, from many different points of view. Thus were are told that in the surroundings of the earth the world-ether is differentiated into four conditions, corresponding to the four states of matter known to science. The highest and finest of these, called by Dr. Steiner the life-ether, is reflected in the densest state of matter, the solid; the chemical ether (or sound-ether) is reflected in the liquid state (hence the effect of moisture in facilitating chemical reactions); the light-ether is reflected in the gaseous state; and the lowest ether, the warmth-ether, is closely reflected in, and bound up with, its physical counterpart, heat. [4]

Hence the etheric forces are not concerned only with living organisms, they work as shapers and activators also in the mineral realm. Here the typical form is the crystal, in all its mathematically precise varieties. The crystal, too is shaped by etheric forces : not, however, from inside, as with the plants, but from outside.Within the crystal there is no surge of life to keep its forms mobile; it is fixed and stable; and when it “grows” it does so from outside, by accretion. The etheric forces stream formatively inwards to the crystal’s very edge, and there they cease; the space occupied by the physical substance is etherically empty. These crystal-shaping forces come from the farthest heavens; and the mathematical ordering of the stars in their courses gives us a picture, or parable, of the crystal realm.

To enter with our thinking into this varied and complex world of etheric forces is obviously no easy task, but we can hold before
us a simple starting-point. If we try to imagine what it is that shapes the manifold forms of matter, and enters formatively into growing and living organisms, we shall be orienting our thinking in the right direction. That is the first step. And Rudolf Steiner has indicated the ways whereby those with the necessary endowment and per severance can so strengthen their thinking that it becomes, not merely a means of forming more or less inadequate concepts of the etheric, but an organ, an eye of the imagination, for directly perceiving it.

Moreover, for those who are not destined to reach this stage, there are ways in which the mobile thought-forms which belong to the etheric world can be valuably exercised. Much, for example, can be gained from the study of projective geometry, in which Dr. Steiner saw the seeds of a true etheric geometry, capable of fulfilling for etheric space the same kind of function that is performed by Euclidean geometry (and its variants) for physical space.

The history of projective geometry may indeed be viewed as pointing to a providential working of destiny in the affairs of men. Three centuries ago, while Descartes was creating his system of Cartesian geometrical analysis, which was later to give modern materialistic science so powerful a tool, in the minds of some other men, notably Desargues and Pascal, a new geometry, instinct with a new vision, was arising. Quietly and unobtrusively this new way of thinking entered the world; few practical applications were found for it; and few people, outside a small circle of mathematicians, even heard of it. Yet through the centuries projective geometry grew and developed – and in due time it was ready for Rudolf Steiner to point to it as the geometry of the realms of life, and to show that through its thought-forms we may draw near to a mental grasping of the etheric forces at work.

It is no wonder that a purely quantitative science should have found that scant use for a geometry which pays so little heed to the metrical. Whereas the fundamental facts and propositions of Euclidean space are nearly all concerned with measurement, the equality of lines and angles, congruence of triangles, etc., in projective geometry one moves into a much freer and more mobile region of thought. Here one meets the three basic elements of space— plane, point and line—but not in the fixed form of ordinary geometrical diagram. One meets them in interweaving intercourse with one another, point and plane as a polarity, with the line mediating between them; and generating from their intercourse an everchanging series of curves and surfaces. Here, instead of dealing with forces proceeding from points and drawing material substance inwards towards a centre, one gains insight into the mode of working of planar forces which play in from the infinite periphery and act on
-material substance by expanding it and drawing it outwards. (So one may think of etheric forces “sucking” a plant from the earth.) But as the subject of projective geometry, particularly in relation to the growth of plants, was expertly treated in the two preceding issues of this Annual,[5] it will be enough merely to indicate here its relevance to any study of the etheric world.

In conclusion, however, one further aspect of the relation of projective to Euclidian-Cartesian geometry may be tentatively suggested ; it will lead us back to Dr. Steiner’s lecture. Both geometries must be regarded ultimately as manifestations of Beings; as the thought-imprints of the Spirits of Form, the Exusiai, but with an important difference between them. In Euclidean-Cartesian geometry we seem to encounter the “finished work” of the Exusiai; the fixed result of their creative labours in shaping the realms of nature during a far-distant past. In projective geometry we encounter a manifestation of the living activity of the members of the Second Hierarchy, as thorough the medium of the etheric forces they shape and guide the activities of living nature, the coming into physical existence, the growth and ceaseless metamorphosis and the passing away of her myriad forms, from fragile petal to long-lasting bone.

In the days of Descartes it took courage for men to set aside traditional wisdom and rely on their own conscious thinking for the attempt to understand nature and master her powers. We are now at the beginning of another and equally necessary era in human thought; one of its keynotes is that the way has been opened for developing a science of life which will balance and rectify the often dangerous achievements of physical science in the realm of the lifeless, and will prove to have far-reaching practical applications in many fields, particularly at first those of medicine and agriculture. Once more we need courage—the courage this time to open the inner eyes of our thinking, so that in clear consciousness we may penetrate beyond the scientist’s self-imposed limits of knowledge into those
regions of active being where the outer manifestations of nature have their source.


[1] See Descartes, Oeuvres, iv, 494

[2] Later in this article some account will be given of Rudolf Steiner’s quite different use of the word—a revival of an older conception of the ether in new forms.

[3] “The methods of the chemist are rough and his reagents powerful. They will put together the parts of a complicated molecule in the correct order, but no way has been found—unless it occurs by the natural process of crystallisation—of fitting molecules together into a structure highly organised in
space.” Dr. J. A. V. Butler, Man is a Microcosm (Macmillan, 1950), p.l9.

[4] Cf. Dr. G. Wachsmuth. The Etheric Formative Forces in Cosmos, Earth, and Man (Anthroposophical Publishing Company, 1932)

[5] See “Goethe’s ‘Light and Darknessand the Science of the Future,” by George Adams, in The Golden Blade, 1949; and “Plant Growth and Forms of Space,” by George Adams and Olive Whicher, in The Golden Blade, 1950. – (TO BE PUBLISHED ON AF SOON)