Systemic threefolding and the question of body, soul and spirit

By Michaela Glöckler, December 2019

Human thinking, feeling and the will are mirrored in three different physiological processes. Rudolf Steiner first described this in 1917. But they are also related to the trinity of body, soul and spirit and the four so-called human constitutional elements.


During the day

At night


Conscious thinking life:




non-bodily activity of the etheric body



Unconscious, regenerating bodily life:

Unconscious physical life:



body-oriented homogenous activity of the etheric body

body-oriented work of the etheric body




The life processes (etheric body) during the day and at night. (Illustration from Michaela Glöckler, Was ist anthroposophische Medizin?)

Steiner sees the “physical counterpart” to the life of perceptions and ideas in human beings in the physiological processes of the nervous and sensory organs. Feeling and the will, in contrast, have their “physical counterpart” in the physiological processes of the rhythmical and the metabolic and limb systems. These research results have meanwhile been followed up in many different instances and scientifically underpinned. (Girke; Schad; Soldner/Stellmann). Let us begin, however, by dealing with the four constitutional elements of the human being which Rudolf Steiner also calls “interconnected sets of laws”. 

Embryonic development and body-forming activity of the human constitutional elements

In the first four weeks of embryonic development, it is as if we can watch the four human constitutional elements at work. Steiner describes the laws within the physical world in their overall context as the physical organisation or physical body. These are laws which are at work from point to point and which have their substrate in the substances of the physical world. In the first week of development, their activity can be seen in the point which is the collection of cells in the so-called morula stage. 

The laws of life, in contrast, which are connected with the sun and the planetary rhythms, can be observed in the second week. Steiner calls these laws the etheric organisation or etheric body and describes them as forces which originate and work peripherally and spherically. And it is precisely this intervention of spherically working forces which can be seen in the development of the embryonic envelope in the second week at the centre of which the embryo itself consists of only two thin cell layers, the ectoderm and the endoderm, which are also organised in a spherically flat way. 

Steiner calls the laws of mental experience the astral organisation or astral body. These are laws of polarisation and differentiation. They can be seen in the third week in which the threefoldness for the first time comes morphologically to appearance and thus the differentiation of the mesoderm and the other tissue also starts. 

The laws of the “world and human spirit” are called the I organisation. Their action can be identified in the fourth week in that the overall shape of the embryo becomes apparent as the result of powerful integration processes. As we know well from embryonic development: the holistically controlled proliferating growth, the differentiating organisation and the integrating, mutually coordinating and reciprocally limiting process management are the complex forms of expression of what Rudolf Steiner describes as the four human constitutional elements with the characteristic effect of their forces. 

In the second month, we can then impressively observe the interaction of the four human constitutional elements in the threefold organism. 

At first, all activity seems centred towards the head. This is followed by the development of the rhythmically structured middle. Finally there is the predisposition of the metabolic organs and the limb buds which then turn into identifiable arms and legs by the end of the second month. 

Body, soul and spirit

Under “body” we do not understand the corpse – the physical body abandoned by life, soul and spirit – but the complex interrelationship that is the living, ensouled and spirit-endowed human being. In other words, the human body is in form and substance a result of the interaction of all the four human constitutional elements in the metabolic sphere. There is no substance in the human organism which has not gone through at least one processing stage in the liver and is then transported to the place where it is needed via the blood. In addition to the liver, the metabolic system comprises all organs which serve the intake and processing of food, that is all anabolic and catabolic processes connected with the transformation of food into bodily substance. All four interconnected sets of laws work harmoniously together in this functional area and are only impaired to a greater or lesser extent when the organism is ill. The metabolic system is thus completely responsible for building up the body and its regeneration. We are, however, not conscious of this region. We experience the healthy metabolism as strength and physical energy at our disposal – we can also say, as a general physically associated experience of the will. 

We have the wakeful human spirit as the polar opposite. It is served by the nervous system which in its functions is ruled by degenerative processes and can only survive for a short time without the supply of oxygen. Here the human constitutional elements are involved only minimally in the cell metabolism in building the body which is why we also become tired and go to sleep. Whereas the rhythmical and metabolic system can continue to work day and night, this does apply with regard to the nervous and sensory system. The waking conscious life has an individually determined time limit – then the nervous and sensory system invariably needs to recuperate. As a consequence, there is little regenerative body building work that goes on during the waking state. Instead we have a differentiating waking consciousness which we localise in the place where we turn our attention. We experience waking consciousness as mentally free and easily controllable in self-determined activity. Steiner describes this activity as a purely spiritual “extra corporeal” experience. 

It is the foundation of the anthroposophical understanding of the human being. It says no more and no less than that the laws of the human constitutional elements which we can vividly observe in embryonic development are already present before birth and also continue to exist after death as our spiritual being as humans. On conception, this spiritual human being, the so-called spiritual embryo of the physical body, combines together with the other constitutional elements with the fertilised egg cell and incarnation, “embodiment” starts. 

As the body matures, the human constitutional elements are gradually released from their body-forming work and can turn to mental and spiritual activity which is reflected in the nervous system and breaks down the latter in the process. 

But this metamorphosis of the body-forming activity of the constitutional elements into mental and spiritual activity does not happen uniformly in the human organism but is different in its three functional elements. If the constitutional elements were to be released from the metabolism into conscious activity, for example, this would not be compatible with health. The complete separation of the etheric, astral and I organisation is only compatible with the nervous and sensory life, according with its devitalising nature. 

From this perspective, human spirit would thus be the non-bodily interaction of these three organisations in the thinking and the associated sensory activity. “Body” in this sense would be incarnated spirit and “spirit” excarnated spirit acting outside the body. Self-observation confirms this. If we consciously observe our thinking, we notice that we become active in a threefold way: in generating “mental images” (here we experience our intellectual life, our “intellectual power of growth”). But the involvement of the feeling in the thinking is also evident because the coherence or contradiction of thoughts, their beauty or ugliness, is felt (non-bodily astral activity). But anyone who really reflects on things, that is thinks for themselves, exercises their will (non-bodily activity of the I organisation). This also puts the physiological difference between waking and sleeping in a new light: the human constitutional elements of the astral body and I organisation at work in the thinking continue their extra-corporeal activity at night but the etheric body withdraws from them since it returns to the organism to regenerate the nervous system and is not available for the extra-corporeal reflecting activity. 

As a result, the astral body and I organisation can turn towards their prenatal macrocosmic home and find refreshment and guidance in the rhythmically ordered planetary world (astral body) and the sphere of the fixed stars (I-organisation). 

In the feeling, in contrast, it is evident that the thinking has been turned off but not the will. Hence some people often appear “emotional”. By that we mean the will impulse associated with feeling which in a social context can either be well or less well received, depending on the situation. In feeling, it is thus only the astral body and I organisation which work in a non-bodily way. The physical basis for this special configuration between body and spirit, metabolic and nervous system, is the rhythmical system in which respiration and cardiac activity are coordinated with one another. 

Anyone who pays attention to their feeling life and rhythmical system when listening to music will be able to confirm through their direct own experience what Rudolf Steiner discovered in his research: that feelings have a direct and unmediated modifying effect on the oscillations of the rhythmical system and, on the other hand, are also supported by the rhythmical system. Feelings are not produced by neurochemical processes in the nervous system! Rather, feelings as mental realities are brought to consciousness with the aid of nervous and sensory activity and made accessible to the thinking. Rudolf Steiner’s blackboard drawing above from a lecture for doctors illustrates this situation. 

Consequences for practice

From what has been described above, we can begin to understand the extent to which everything in school that appeals to the thinking, feeling and will of the children and young people always influences both the soul life and the associated physical system and its physiology in growth and development. This also gives Rudolf Steiner’s remark from the first lecture in The Foundations of Human Experience  that the teacher had to be concerned about the proper relationship between sleeping and waking in their pupils – its physiological foundation. 

For the differentiating astral body cannot complete its body-building work until puberty and be fully available for its involvement in the thinking and emotional feeling activity. But this also means that it cannot refresh itself at night in the world of the stars. That is why it is so crucial that teaching should be spiritually oriented – and that the teacher makes an authentic and truthful impression on their pupils in lessons. 

The same applies correspondingly to the I organisation which only completes the metamorphosis to extra-corporeal activity between the age of 14 and 21. Humanity and being guided by values are the balance here for a night life which cannot yet turn back to the heavenly home which we inhabited before birth.

Eurythmy, too, obtains a new important meaning against this background. Steiner’s sketch reproduced above about the relationship between our threefold and fourfold nature also shows that there is a place in the metabolic and limb system where the I organisation turns free of the body – as pure “non-bodily” will” – independently of thinking and feeling. This place is the limbs, the organs of voluntary motor functions. 

In eurythmy, these organs are trained to free themselves from the instinctual bodily needs. They are trained to place themselves at the service of language and poetry, music and the laws of movement. They are exercised to reveal cosmic laws – and to do all these things voluntarily. For no one can be forced to do eurythmy. We either like to do it, and thus do it voluntarily, or we don’t do it at all. 

Waldorf education aims to be an education for freedom. But in order to understand the physiology of freedom this requires, and to learn to handle it consciously, it is helpful to study the fourfold constitution of the human constitutional elements in its relationship with the functional threefold organisation. For the mystery of freedom is that the threefold organism becomes the living ensouled instrument on which the human I plays. Just as we can see in the image of embryonic development: first the three systems are predisposed, then the overall shape is formed as an image of the human I. 

About the author: Dr med. Michaela Glöckler, paediatrician, is the former head of the Medical Section at the Goetheanum/Dornach.