Fourfold Human Being

The human being is composed of four bodies with different basic functions. First is the physical body – that is, the outward physical form of the body – which is built up out of mineral substances and which is for that reason visible to us. Second is the invisible etheric body which enables our life processes and functions. The next invisible body is the astral body which enables us to have feelings and perceptions. The highest supersensible body is the ‘I’ or Ego, our essential self, which enables us to be conscious of ourselves as individual beings among other beings.

Four Bodies of Man in Relation to Four Kingdoms of Nature

“Man must be regarded as a being who consists not only of the physical body that is visible to the eye, but also of higher members – invisible bodies. The first invisible member, the ether body, is a much finer, more delicate body and cannot be perceived by the ordinary senses. It is the source of life not only in man, but also in the plants and animals. Another higher member is the astral body which enables man to have feelings and perceptions. He has this body in common with the animals, for they too have an astral body. But man has something which the animal has not, namely, self-consciousness, ‘I’-consciousness. Man, then, consists of the visible physical body and of three higher members: ether body, astral body and the ‘I’.” [1]

“We learn about the human body by means of our bodily senses, and our mode of observation can be no different than if we were learning about other sense-perceptible things. We can observe the human being in the same way that we observe minerals, plants and animals, and as human beings, we are related to these three other forms of existence. Like the minerals, we build up our bodies out of natural substances; like the plants, we grow and reproduce; like the animals, we perceive the objects around us and develop inner experiences based on the impressions they make on us. [2] Therefore, we may attribute a mineral, a plant and an animal existence to the human being.

The structural differences between minerals, plants and animals correspond to their three modes of existence. Just as we attribute mineral, plant and animal modes of existence to the human body, we must also attribute to it a fourth and distinctively human mode. Through the mineral mode of existence we are related to everything visible, through the plant-like mode to everything that grows and reproduces, and through the animal mode to all creatures that perceive their environment and have inner experiences based on outer impressions. But through the human mode, even with regard to the physical body, we make up a kingdom that is ours alone.” [3]

“Spiritual science reviews four basic phenomena which we can all recognize: form, life, sentience (a consciousness based on sense-experience) and selfhood (an awareness of the self). We may say:

“Within the manifest world it is the physical body in which man is of like nature with the mineral creation. Anything that distinguishes man from the mineral cannot properly be regarded as ‘physical body’. To clear and open-minded reflection the important fact will be that death lays bare the part of the human being which – after death – is of like nature with the mineral world. We can point to the corpse as to that part of man, which, after death, is subject to processes such as are also found in the mineral kingdom. While the same substances and forces are indeed at work in the physical body of man and in the mineral, during man’s life their activity is made to serve a higher function. It is only when death has taken place that they work identically with the mineral world. Then they appear, as indeed they must in accordance with their own nature, as the destroyer of the form and structure of man’s physical body.

Thus we are able clearly to distinguish what is manifest from what is hidden in the human being. Throughout the life of man something that is hidden must perpetually be battling with the mineral substances and forces in the physical body. The moment the battle ceases, the mineral form of activity makes its appearance. Although the hidden something which battles against the disintegration of the physical body can be observed by seership alone, in its effects it is plainly evident even to the kind of judgment which is restricted to the outwardly manifest. For its effects are expressed in the form and shape into which the substances and forces of the physical body are combined during life. When death has taken place, this form gradually disappears and the physical body becomes part of the mineral kingdom pure and simple. Supersensible perception can observe, as an independent member of the human being, what it is that prevents the physical substances and forces during life from going their own way, which would, as we have seen, lead to the disintegration of the physical body. We will call this independent member of man’s being the etheric body or life body.

The etheric body then, constitutes a second member of the human being. For supersensible perception it has indeed a higher degree of reality than the physical. The etheric body completely permeates the physical, of which it may be regarded as a kind of architect. All the organs of the physical body are maintained in their form and structure by the currents and movements of the etheric body. Underlying the physical heart there is an etheric heart, underlying the physical brain an etheric brain, and so on. The etheric body is in effect a differentiated body like the physical, only far more complicated. And whereas in the physical body there are relatively separated parts, in the etheric all is in living interflow and movement. Man has the etheric body in common with the plant world, just as he has the physical body in common with the mineral. Everything that is alive has an etheric body.

From the etheric body, the science of the supersensible advances to a further member of human nature - the astral body. And as in leading up to the etheric body attention had to be drawn to death, so, to form a conception of this further member of man’s nature, supersensible science points to the phenomenon of sleep. All the creative work of man depends – so far as the manifest world is concerned – on his activity in waking life. But this activity is only possible if he again and again derives from sleep a strengthening of his exhausted forces. In sleep, action and thought disappear; pain and joy vanish from conscious life. On awakening, man’s conscious powers well up from the unconsciousness of sleep as if from mysterious and hidden springs. It is the same consciousness which sinks into dark depths when man falls asleep, and then arises again when he awakens. To the science of the supersensible, what rouses life again and again from the unconscious state is the astral body.

As the physical body cannot maintain its form through the mineral substances and forces it contains, but needs to be permeated by the etheric body, so too the forces of the etheric body cannot of themselves become illumined with the light of consciousness. Left to itself, an etheric body would of necessity be in a perpetual state of sleep – or, we may also say, could only maintain in the physical body a vegetable form of life. An etheric body that is awake is illumined by an astral body. For outer observation the effect of the astral body disappears when man falls asleep. For supersensible observation however, the astral body still remains, but it is now seen to be separated from the etheric body, or lifted out of it. Man has his physical body in common with the minerals and his etheric body with the plants. In the same sense he is of like nature with the animals in respect of the astral body. The plant is in a perpetual state of sleep. Consciousness is only there when for example, through the effect of heat, the being inwardly experiences pain.

The fourth member which supersensible science attributes to the human being is the ‘I’ or ego of man. If the astral body were left to itself, pleasure and pain, feelings of hunger or of thirst would come and go in it, but one thing would never come about – namely, the sense of something permanent in all these things. Not the permanent itself, but that which has conscious experience of the perm­anent, is here called the ‘I’. With the awareness of something permanent and lasting in the changing flow of inner experiences, the feeling of ‘I’, of inner selfhood begins to dawn. The mere fact that a creature experiences hunger, for example, cannot give it the feeling of ‘I’. On every new occasion when the causes of hunger make themselves felt, hunger arises. The creature falls upon its food simply because the causes of hunger are there anew. The feeling of ‘I’ comes in when the creature is not merely impelled to take food by the renewed causes of hunger, but when a previous satisfaction (of hunger) gave rise to a sense of pleasure and the consciousness of the pleasure has remained (in the memory). Here it is not only the present experience of hunger but the past experience of satisfaction (of hunger with food) which provides the impulse (for its repetition).

The physical body disintegrates when it is not held together by the etheric; the etheric body falls into unconsciousness when it is not irradiated by the astral body. In like manner the astral body would ever and again have to let the past sink into oblivion, if the ‘I’ did not preserve the past and carry it over into the present. Forgetting is for the astral body what death is for the physical body and sleep for the etheric. Or, as we may also express it:

Here we need to clarify one seeming contradiction. Although the physical body provides the outwardly perceptible physical forms of minerals, plants, animals and human beings, this doesn’t mean that the physical body is the sole ‘architect’ of these physical forms. This is true only for the pure mineral bodies. In the case of living organisms, the etheric body contributes the etheric archetypes of the forms of the diverse living creatures. In the case of the animals and human beings, the astral body significantly contributes to the shapes of their bodies. And in the case of human beings the ego is the leading ‘architect’ of the human form.

This explains why the physical body – in spite of the fact that it is the source of our visible physical body – is the source of disintegration of this same body after the death. As is known from physics the mineral kingdom is heading towards so-called ‘warmth-death’, caused by the law of entropy which causes all physical energies to slowly disperse towards the uniform state of warmth. There is also the recognition that the living organisms combat this tendency of disintegration with the help of an organizing force, called ‘negative entropy’. This organising force is the outcome of the presence of the etheric body. Thus we have the mineral world with its substances that give us the visible physical form, but the power of preservation of this form comes from the etheric body. For that reason it is also called the life body.


  1. Rudolf Steiner, Dornach, 19.01.1924; Cosmic Workings in Earth and Man,
  2. The soul body enables an animal or a human being to consciously experience the quality of the sense impressions inwardly. This inner sensing is then manifested in the feelings of pleasure or displeasure. When a plant reacts to the outer stimuli (e.g. sunflower following the movement of the sun, etc.) this does not mean that the sunflower feels the pleasure of sun-bathing as we do. If response to the outer stimuli were the proof of feeling life, then we would need to ascribe it also to all minerals which react to the presence of another mineral in a chemical reaction.
  3. Rudolf Steiner, Theosophy, Anthroposophic Press, 1994 (1910)
  4. Francis Edmunds, An Introduction to Anthroposophy, Sophia Books, 2005
  5. The soul body enables perceptions, impressions and feelings related to them; for that reason it is also called ‘sentient body’. We need all this to be conscious of what is happening around us. However, the soul body doesn’t enable us to be conscious of our own existence; this we can reach only by means of thinking which is one of the basic functions of the ego.
  6. Rudolf Steiner, Occult Science – An Outline, Rudolf Steiner Press, 2005

Fourfold Human Being
By Brane Žilavec