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This manuscript was self-published in 1982 as Occult Wereldbeeld ("The Occult Worldview") and republished in 1995 as Zeven Sferen ("Seven Spheres") by the Dutch Theosophical Publishing House. It contains my summary of the perennialist tradition, as it can be found in the writings of Theosophical authors such as Annie Besant, C.W. Leadbeater, I.K. Taimni and others. It provides the background of the articles on perennialism I have written for IW.


Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion, SUNY 2003Frank Visser, a psychologist of religion, founded in 1997 (back then under the name of “The World of Ken Wilber”). He worked as production manager for various publishing houses and as service manager for various internet companies and lives in Amsterdam. He is the author of the first monograph on Ken Wilber and his work: “Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion” (SUNY Press, 2003), which has been translated into 7 languages, and of many essays on this website.


Views of Human Nature

Seven Spheres: Chapter 2

Frank Visser

Who or what is a human being? This question has been answered over the centuries in very diverse ways. The human being has been presented as a divine entity, descended from higher spheres to the earth; as a highly developped animal, with a long evolutionary history; or as the result of an accidental combination of atoms. And nowadays the human being is seen as a very sophisticated computer, capable of complex mental behavior, but still fundamentally material, if we are to believe the leading philosophers of consciousness. The search for an ultimate answer to the question of the essence of human nature seems to be doomed from the start.

In this chapter we will make our goal a bit less ambitious. Our aim will be to establish some order in the multitude of views of human nature that can be found in religious and scientific sources. The main ordering principle we are going to use is that of 'numerical complexity'. Views of human nature can be ranked from simple to complex, depending on the number of different 'parts' of human nature they acknowledge. And the more complex views of human nature can exlain more of the complexities of human nature, as we will see.

The view of human nature of spiritual tradition is one of the most complicated ever to have been devised. Compared to this, the current scientif view is rather pale. We shall give a long introduction to the traditional view, by looking at the less complex views first. Whe will pay special attention to what is gained by every new distinction (for an overview see fig. 2.1). Because the view of human nature is such a central component in every philosophy of life, each successive refinement will have its effect on other components. For example, the more complex the view of human nature, the more complex will be its view on life after death or the process of spiritual development. The more refined our view of human nature, the more refined our view of the afterlife or of mystical experience can be.

FIG. 2.1 - Various Views of Human Nature (Sorted by Numerical Complexity)
          Spirit Monad SELF
Spirit Soul Soul Ego
Mind Soul Mind Mind Mind
Soul Desire/
Body Body Body Body Body Body Body Body

The simple view

The most simple view of human nature is that of materialism. The current scientific and materialistic view of human nature has been influenced heavily by the discoveries of medical and biological science. Centuries of painstaking research into the workings of the human body and the human brain have given us a picture of the human being as a complicated biological organism, which can think thanks to the numerous connections in his brain. However complex this scientific view of human nature may be, it is essentially very simple: all functionings of consciousness are reduced to one principle: matter. Most scientist subscribe – at least publicly – to the idea that a human being in the last analysis is a material creature, which consists of his or her physical body only (see fig. 2.1A).

The popularity of the materialistic view of human nature is understandable. It makes it possible to reduce everything we know about humans to a single cause: material processes – no doubt a tempting intellectual prospect. In the last decennia computer science has taken flight. Computers seem to be capable of 'mental behaviour' that surpasses that of a human being in speed and accuracy by far. If a computer can play chess – one of the most abstract human activities – how can we any longer deny that it has at least some form of consciousness?

The scientific debate has become futher radicalized in the last few years. Whereas there was initially the rather startling thought that computers may possess a form of 'consciousness', nowadays we hear the opposite: do human beings, like computers, have in fact consciousness at all? Or should we dismiss the idea that human behavior is determined by feelings and thoughts as quickly as possible as a kind of backward folklore? Is consciousness perhaps only the illusiory result of electrochemical processes in the human brain?

Thanks to Daniel Dennett, one of the leading consciousness philosophers of this day, the conviction has won ground that people are mere moving and sound producing machines. When I asked him some years ago during the symposium 'The Nature of Intelligence' (held in 1988 in Rotterdam, The Netherlands) how he could be so sure of this, he admitted he did not possess as yet a materialistic explanation of consciousness, but did not see any viable alternative. A few years later, he was to publish his book Consciousness Explained – a rather strange title for a work that tries to explain consciousness away.

However, the fact that modern philosophy of mind has come to this conclusion about human nature has everyting to do with its method of research. By exclusively basing itself on observations of the behaviour of others – this is called 'third person science' – instead of one's own experience – which is called 'first person science' – psychology of course only finds material phenomena. We can only see other people's physical bodies. The materialism is built in, so to speak, in the scientific enterprise! By also paying attention to one's own inner experience, which can be known directly through introspection, the door is opened for a more 'spiritual' or at least less materialistic psychology, that acknowledges the reality of inner life. And here also, there is a strong connection between the methods of reseach used and the result.

All euphoria about the accomplishments of computers aside – these are impressive indeed sometimes – in my opinion one thing is continually overlooked. As everyone can observe in him- or herself there is a difference between doing something, and knowing you are doing it. The first aspect can to a certain extent by simulated by a computer, but the second aspect cannot – and this is by far the most interesting aspect of human consiousness. But modern psychology has become so much a psychology 'from the outside', that this elementary distinction is not made anymore. Only a psychology 'from the inside' will pay attention to this undeniable aspect of human consciousness.

The German philosopher Brentano, one of the founders of the school of phenomenology, a philosophy that pays close attention to the subjective nature of human experience, was of the opinion that the most important distinction between matter and mind consists in the fact that the mind shows intentionality ('directedness') and matter does not. In his view of human nature, the mind is always directed at something – it thinks something, it perceives something, it hopes for something, it experiences something, etcetera. Matter is never directed at something, it just is there, without any knowledge of itself.

If this directedness of the mind, the Achilles heel of the contemporary materialistic view of human nature, cannot be explained by matter – and it starts to look like that more and more, as many cognitive scientist become disillusioned by the computer metaphor – then we shall have to resort to a non-material principle, if we are to find an explanation for this undeniable and most interesting aspect of human consiousness. This will inevitably lead us to the next view of human nature.

The twofold view

The twofold view of human nature speaks of the body and a non-bodily factor, mostly called the soul, the mind or the spirit (fig. 2.1B). Historical examples of this view can be found in the famous Greek philosopher Plato and the French philosopher Descartes, often called the 'father of modern philosophy'.

In the view of Plato, the soul of man belongs to an other world: the world of Ideas, which is eternal and immortal compared to the world of matter. The soul has come into this world of matter by accident. The soul is pictured by Plato as a chariot, with a number of horses. One of these horses stumbled, which caused the chariot to fall, and made the soul tumble down from the higher worlds. The horses represent different parts of human nature, one of which has an attraction to earthly existence.

According to Plato, it is the task of every human being to detach oneself from the body and to prepare oneself for death, when the soul is set free from the 'prison' of the body. He changed his mind during his life about the question of were exactly to draw the line between the mortal and the immortal in human nature: between the body and the soul, or within the soul (between the mortal and the immortal soul-parts). In the latter case, the soul leaves behind the mortal soul-parts at the moment of death.

Another instance of the twofold view of human nature can be found in Descartes. This thinker has described human nature as consisting of two parts: 'knowing substance' (res cogitans) and 'extensive substance' (res extensa). The body, the extensive substance, has dimensions; the soul, the thinking substance, does not. The body can be looked upon in a way as an automaton; the soul then becomes a mysterious principle that seems to have no contact with the body – 'the ghost in the machine'. This is indeed a weak point of the twofold view of human nature: if body and soul are so different, how can they influence each other?

Everybody can convince him- or herself of this mutual influence. If we perceive something, a physical impression leads to a mental perception; if we move our hand, a mental resolve leads to a physical act. We can of course shrink back from this difficulty, and return to the materialistic view of human nature, but then we lose more than we gain. As we saw in the preceding paragraph, materialism cannot account for the most important feature of human consciousness: intentionality. We have to be faithful to the facts of our own experience.

What have we gained by positing a soul next to the body? The distinction between body and soul makes it possible to picture a rudimentary form of life after death, in which the soul lives on after the death of the body. A pre-existence of the soul also comes into view: the soul existed before coming into the body. Whether post-existence and pre-existence are eternal, or whether the soul has a finite existence, cannot be decided on the basis of this view. What does seem necessary is that pre-existence and post-existence form exact mirror images of each other.

In general speech we do not go beyond the twofold view of human nature. We speak of a healthy mind in a healthy body, of mind body medicine and of the philosophy of mind. Nevertheless, there arises the question of whether the inner life can be captured with only one single term – mind, soul or spirit. By doing so, are we doing justice to the complexity of consciousness? Or is this view of human nature far too simplistic? A new distinction seems to be needed.

The threefold view

On closer inspection the world of human consciousness seems to be very complex indeed. For this reason views of human nature have been proposed that make a distinction between soul and spirit. In these views soul and spirit can't be used interchangeably. There is difference of opinion as to which of the two should be seen as the highest principle. In most cases this is spirit.

A very common interpretation of the threefold view of human nature goes like this: a human being consists of body, emotions (soul) and thought (spirit). Thinking is a spiritual power in this view (fig. 2.1C). The inner life is subdivided into emotions and thoughts. However, some authors count thought also as something of the soul, and see spirit as something that transcends thought altogether (fig. 2.1D). Soul itself is subdivided into two parts, because it consists of feeling and thinking, whereas spirit gets a more spiritual connotation. The distinction between soul and spirit is made especially by mystically inclined men and women. In this view, everbody knows the soul, but the spirit is known to only a few: those who have experienced the 'enlightenment' of the soul by the spirit. Intuition is frequently seen as a power of the human spirit.

Since psychology, as the science of the soul, concerns itself primarily with emotions and thoughts (and behavior), the spirit should be the subject matter of 'pneumatology', or the science of spirit. In the last decennia 'transpersonal' psychology has come into existence. This school of psychology tries to chart this spiritual part of human experience. As psychologists primarily look to the psychological personality (soul), transpersonal psychologists try to study the spiritual element of human nature, as to its nature and its mode of development.

The order of the terms 'soul' and 'spirit' is sometimes reversed: body-spirit-soul, or more frequently: body-mind-soul (see fig. 2.1E). Spirit or mind then stands for the power of thought, soul – frequently written with a capital 'S'-- for the 'spiritual' element. It is obvious that we have here the same view of human nature as we encountered before, only the wording differs. It will also be obvious that this has led to substantial confusion about the terms soul and spirit (or mind).

In a way, we have already encountered the term 'soul' in three different meanings: (1) soul as emotion, (2) soul as the total personality (of feeling and thinking), and (3) soul as the spiritual element, which transcends the personality. Recently there has been a wave of interest in the soul – at the expense of spirit? – thanks to the efforts of neo-Jungians like James Hillman and Thomas Moore. According to Robert Bly, another Jungian psychologist, Hillman charactarizes soul as something that is 'wet, dark and low' – evidently meaning (1). Thomas Moore, who has followed the trail of Hillman, has with his best seller Care of the Soul succeeded in bringing the soul to the attention of the larger public. With respect to our discussion, the following question is relevant: which soul is meant here actually? Because of the great stress Moore lays on the emotional human life – depression and jealousy for example – the first of the three meanings is probably intended. Moore's gaze is directed downwards, not upwards. After all, he is depth psychologist, not a height psychologist.

It is evident that these thoughts don't fit in easily with the spiritual traditions of humanity. These would rather describe the soul as something 'dry, light and high'! But high is out nowadays, and low is in. The confusion around the concept of soul has grown to such a degree that it is hight time we disentangle all the different meanings. The primarily emotional soul of James Hillman, for example, is of a totally different quality than the spiritual soul – or Soul – of spiritual tradition. Not surprisingly, the views of Hillman and Moore have been criticized by members of spiritual schools of thoughts. The idea that the term 'soul' no longer points to one single spiritual core, but to the numerous facets of emotional human life, has justifiably caused indignant reactions.

Recently, Moore explained his emphasis on the soul during a lecture in Amsterdam. In his opinion, spirit strives upward and runs the risk of losing contact with the earthly reality of body and nature, with dire psychological and ecological consequences. In contrast, soul stays in contact with the concrete things of life. Moreover, spirit (for Moore both the power of thought and transcendence) has gotten the most attention, according to him. But is it fair to compare the distortions of spirit with the harmonious soul? Don't we also need a 'care of the spirit', that among other things teaches us how to differentiate from the personality, without dissociating from it? One who rises high, can fall deep. Should we stop trying to rise then? Is this not the glory of a human being? A more balanced view of human nature will give body, soul and spirit their rightful place.

The tendency to equate soul with emotion and spirit with intellect can also be found in the works of Jung. In his book Psychological Types for example, he discusses the gnostic view of human nature. Gnostics like Valentinus spoke for example of soul-people (psychikoi) and spirit-people (pneumatikoi). The precise meaning of these terms depends of course on the meaning we give to soul and spirit. One who equates spirit with thinking, will see spirit-people as intellectuals and soul-people as emotional types. However, one who sees spirit as something that transcends thought will look upon them as enlightened beings, definitely not intellectuals.

According to Jung, the gnostics encountered opposition from the Church because the Church consisted mainly of emotional believers, who did not value the intellect. But were the gnostics really after intellectual knowledge? They were looking for an intuitive knowledge, also called 'the knowledge of the heart', that had a saving effect on the soul and therefore made the Church and its apparatus of salvation superfluous. It is strange that Jung did not relate gnosis to the intuition, a function he definitely recognized.

The fourfold view

We can divide the inner life even further than this. In a way Jung's view of human nature was fourfold, for he spoke about four psychological functions: sensation, feeling, thinking and intuition. However, some authors present a fourfold view in which a new link is added between the mind and the spirit: the soul. We get the fourfold view of human nature: body-mind-soul-spirit. Exponents of this view are Arthur Young and Huston Smith, both of whom we have met before. They are of the opinion that any view of human nature that takes fewer principles into account does not do justice to the richness of human consciousness. What do we gain from this further division of the inner life?

The body does not give any difficulties, nor does the mind. Mind stands for the psychological personality. The soul is in this ranking the 'spiritual' element, which is transpersonal, but still individual. And spirit stands for something transcendental that cannot be called individual anymore, because it is truly universal – a truly important distinction. Some take spirit as universal, belonging to no one in particular; others see spirit as the highest spiritual principle of human nature. We could see spirit as the 'spark' or 'core' or 'atom' that is the foundation for the spiritual soul that eludes any form of objectivation.

Sometimes the soul is envisioned as the world of the many (archetypes, gods, visions), whereas on the level of spirit only unity reigns (God, the one Self, Emptiness). The idea of a spirit that transcends the soul is rejected by some, because it could lead to rigidity. For example, where Jung spoke of the one Self and the many archetypes, the school of Hillman and Moore seems to have opted totally for the side of the many. They have resorted to 'flexible' Greek polytheism as source of inspiration, where every facet of the soul has its own god or goddess, and rejected the 'rigid' Christian monotheism and the correlated idea of the one Self. To my mind, this leads to fragmentation, a hardly less questionable perspective than rigidity. We'd better recognize both the one and the many in human nature and not play soul and spirit out against each other. Both are needed in a balanced view of human nature.

An advantage of the fourfold view, compared to the threefold view, is that it enables us to subdivide the spiritual Path into a prepatory phase (belonging to soul) and an end stage (pertaining to spirit). Where the experience of enlightenment in the threefold view was an all-or-nothing phenomenon – one is enlightenend or one is not enlightened, that seems to be the question – now we can look at this as a gradual thing. This leads to a view of spiritual growth that stresses less the spectacular and sudden character of spiritual transformation, and more the durable and lasting effects. Experience is replaced by development as leading paradigm.

However, the fourfold view has its drawbacks too. The term 'soul' can, because of its multitude of meanings, be easily misunderstood. Associations that have to do with the psychological 'soul' can easily be transferred to the spiritual 'Soul'. Some authors seem to have fallen into this trap, where they talk about paranormal and occult phenomena as clairvoyance and out of the body experiences as the first spiritual stages of development. However, according to the traditional analysis of human nature, these phenomena belong to the level of the psychological personality – the so called 'psychic' level, to distinguish them from true spirituality.

Still, the fourfold view of human nature has attractive features. If we guard against possible confusions, we could do a lot to clarify the intricacies of human consciousness.

Could we go even further than this?

The sevenfold view

In some modern spiritual schools a sevenfold view of human nature is taught. Theosophy, for example, speaks of 'the seven principles of man'. The step from a three- or fourfold view to a sevenfold one is not so great is it may seem. In fact no new principles are introduced here, only further subdivisions. Let's treat them one by one.

The body, which was treated in all preceding views as one whole, is subdivided here into a visible or 'gross' part and an invisible of 'subtle' part, sometimes called the 'vital' body. The physical body turns out to have an invisible counterpart, which is responsible for the supply of vitality. This vital force is known under different names: bioenergy, prana, chi or ki. In this vital body, seven force centres or chakra's are said to exist (these, by the way, also point to a sevenfold view of human consciousness). Therapeutic systems such as acupuncture, hatha yoga, t'ai chi, bioenergetics and healing are said to function on this invisible but very important level of the human body. Health is seen not so much as a material, physical phenomenon, but as a well functioning vital body. The process of breath-ing is intimately connected with this.

The soul also is subdivided into two parts: feeling and thinking. We encountered this subdivision in earlier views of human nature, so this is nothing new. We have four principles now: (1) body, (2) vitality, (3) feeling and (4) thinking. Thinking here refers to the power of concrete or analogical thought, which is strongly bound to the visible world, in contrast to the power of abstract or logical thought, which has freed itself from the constraints of the visible. This is a well known distinction in developmental psychology, as we will see in chapter 6.

But the greatest value of the sevenfold view of human nature lies in the subdivisions it makes in the realm of spirit. Theosophy takes spirit to be a threefold entity. Successively we get the following principles: (5) abstract thinking, (6) intuition, and (7) will (see fig. 2.1H).

As said before, Theosophy makes a distinction between concrete thought, which could also be called mythic or primitive thought, and thinking proper: the power of abstract thought. Moreover, abstract thinking is seen as a spiritual faculty, a rather startling statement in a time when spirituality and rationality are often seen as opposites and spirituality is associated by many with irrationality. Still, the power of abstraction enables us to rise above the realm of the strictly personal – a definite move in the direction of the transpersonal dimension. Abstract thought gives us access to general knowledge, that is not tainted by personal opinions. The laws of astronomy, for example, which are valid throughout the entire universe, have replaced mythic conceptions about the origin of the cosmos, that are often very concrete and only locally valid. Abstract thought may not lead us to spirituality proper, but it certainly is a step in the right direction.

In the theosophical view of human nature, the second aspect of spirit is the power of intuition. The idea that spirituality has something to do with intuition is very widespread indeed. Some even see it as the only faculty of spirit, and here the great value of the sevenfold view of human nature comes to light, for it can be used to correct these simplistic notions. However, the word 'intuition' is only one possible translation of the original Sanskrit word buddhi, which is meant here. In theosophical psychology the term 'buddhi' has many connotations, like: love, wisdom, empathy, bliss, feelings of unity, enlightenment and ecstacy. In general, we could see it as the level of deep insights, which frequently are accompanied by elated and intense feelings of bliss.

The highest aspect of spirit, according to the theosophical view, is the power of will. This too is rather remarkable. The will is one of the most neglected psychological faculties; only very few psychologists (like Roberto Assagioli, Rollo May) have paid attention to it at all. They have tried to complement the dominant Victorian conception of the will as an instrument of repression, with other possible views. According to them, the will forms our source of courage, determination and power. Patience, the power of endurance, the power of concentration, and discipline are also expressions of the spiritual will. In traditional Christian theology the Will of God is seen as the highest divine faculty. Likewise, in theosophical psychology, the will is seen as the highest spiritual faculty of human consciousness.

The self, the Self and the SELF

Earlier we spoke of a fourfold view of human nature, which places the spirit beyond the soul (see fig. 2.1F). Does esoteric psychology recognize something like this? Indeed, it does. In some theosophical writings this principle is called the 'monad'. Opinions differ as to the precise meaning of this term. Some see the monad as a combination of the sixth (intuition) and seventh (Self) principles of human consciousness; others see it as a principle in its own right, that transcends intuition and will. Only in the latter case can we speak of further progress in our understanding of the essence of the human spirit. I therefore opt for this interpretation. To distinguish the monad from the personal 'self' and the transpersonal 'Self' we could call the monad the 'SELF'. If we count the monad as a principle in its own right – and not just as a combination of principles – and we combine the physical and the vital body – which is justified, because both belong to the physical plane – we get the sevenfold view of human nature we will use in the course of this book.

Two aspects of this view of human nature deserve closer attention. First, because of this ranking all psychological and spiritual faculties are part of a hierarchichal order. From low to high this sequence is recognized: body, vitality, emotions, concrete thought, abstract thought, intuition, will and Self. This vertical ranking is a reflection of the seven spheres, which will be treated in the next chapter. This ranking also suggests a ranking of values: thinking is more valuable than feeling, but the intuition is more valuable than thinking, etcetera. This will be dealt with in chapter 9, on the philosophical aspects of the traditional worldview.

And second, as fig. 2.2 suggests soul and spirit are to a certain extent each other's mirror images, which discloses a link between psychological and spiritual faculties. Concrete thought has an affinity with abstract thought, emotional feeling with intuition, and the body (behavior in general) with the will. In a sense there are three roads to spirit: the way of action, the way of feeling and the way of knowledge, as the yoga tradition knows very well. This mirroring can be understood as a result of the fact that the psychological personality has come from spirit during the process of incarnation, which will be treated in chapter 5 on reincarnation. Also, it can serve as a typology that divides mankind into three broad groups: thinkers, feelers and doers.

Fig. 2.2 - The Sevenfold View of Human Nature
Monad SELF
Will Self
or Ego
or Higher Self
or Individuality
Abstract Mind
Concrete Mind self
or ego
or lower self
or personality

The advantages of the sevenfold view of human nature are legion. It enables us to explain the process of dying as the withdrawal of the vital forces from the physical body, which causes the latter to disintegrate and decay. Life after death becomes subdivided into two broad periods: an emotional one (purgatory), and a mental one (heaven). Both will be treated in chapter 4 on the hereafter. And the spiritual Path also lends itself to a subdivision into two phases – if we leave out for a moment the phase of abstract thought – the stage of the intuition (illumination) and the further stage of the will (unification). These will be treated more fully in chapter 7 on mysticism. If we add the monad to this picture, spiritual development can be represented as a process that is directed at the realisation of the monad or SELF.


We have to agree on the terminology we are going to use in this book. Because the terms soul and spirit are so ambiguous, we will not use them very often. Instead, I prefer the modern theosophical terminology, that speaks of the monad, the Ego and the personality, for its shortness (see fig. 2.1G and fig. 2.2). In esoteric psychology, human nature is divided into three parts.

The monad is the deepest – or highest – spiritual core of the human being, which is reached only in the highest stage of spiritual development. The monad is that which makes one an individual.

The Ego is what we in the preceding paragraphs have called the threefold spirit or the higher Self. It consists of three aspects: will, intuition and abstract thought. (To prevent confusion with the 'ego' of psychology, it is usually written with a capital 'E'). In Theosophy, the rather vague concept of the higher Self is given an exact meaning. As was said before, the spiritual Self is often limited to the faculty of intuition. In this book we recognize all three aspects of the spiritual Self. Still, it is sometimes useful to point to the Self as a whole. Then the shorthand term 'Ego' will be used. Another name for this entity is: individuality.

The personality is a fourfold compound, which consists of: body, vitality, feeling and concrete thought. If we combine body and vitality we get a threefold personality: thinking, feeling en behaving.

A view from above

Often the human principles are looked upon from below, as it were. 'Above' the personality a higher Self is postulated, which is almost never described in detail. The question of how on earth we got this Self in the first place remains unanswered. However, if we look at the human being from above, then things fall in their place. Everyting has unfolded from above downwards.

In our deepest essence everyone of us is a monad, or atom of consciousness. This monad we could see as the human spirit, as far as it exists in itself, resting in itself, independend of the surronding world. An other name is: 'unmanifest' spirit. But the monad manifests itself in three aspects: will, intuition and abstract thought. Then we deal with the Ego, the higher Self or individuality. It is that part of human nature that has to do with spirituality, spiritual development, mysticism and initiation. At the same time, it is the part of human nature that can be said to reincarnate. This Ego manifests itself in turn as the personality.

Monad, Ego and personality differ greatly as to their life span. The physical body exist for the period of one lifetime. The personality exists for a much longer period; it knows a pre-existence before birth and a post-existence after death. The total lifetime of the personality can reach many centuries. The lifetime of the Ego is again many times longer than that of the personality. As it is the Ego that reincarnates, we can estimate its duration at many thousands of years. And as to the monad, we have probably reached the limits of earthly time reckoning. Immortality is a relative thing.

The higher we rise in the series body-personality-Ego-monad, the better we can oversee the problems of life. From the standpoint of the physical body, we cannot form a clear idea of life after death. From the standpoint of the personality, how-ever, we could conceive of personal survival after the death of the physical body. From the standpoint of the Ego, the hereafter is looked upon not so much as the continued existence of the personality, but as a process in which the Ego disentangles itself from the personality – a true breakthrough in our insight into death and after. And reincarnation is not so much seen as the return of the same personality into another body, but as the process in which the same Ego or individuality projects a new personality, which in turn is incarnated into a new physical body.

The subtle bodies

In the preceding paragraphs, we subdivided the inner nature ever further, until we posited seven principles 'inside' the one physical body. We can call this the vision from below. In this view, the body is objective, visible, palpable. The inner principles are not like that: they are subjective, invisible, impalpable.

However, we can develop a vision from above as well. This time, we depart from the spark of the monad, the deepest spiritual core of our being. This monad envelops itself into a great number of 'sheaths' or 'bodies', starting with the will, and ending with the physical body. Here, the monad is the subjective element; the bodies are more or less objective. That this is not a speculative or whimsical idea is demonstrated by the broad occurrence in time and space of the idea of the subtle bodies. A major source of this type of thinking is the four volumed Vehicles of Consciousness by the Dutch philosopher J.J. Poortman.

These subtle bodies turn out to be perceptible for clairvoyants, who are able to observe the human aura (for example C.W. Leadbeater and Dora Kunz). They perceived a colorful radiant field around the physical body, which on closer inspection consists of different layers. The first layer is often called the vital aura (or health aura, the vital or etheric body). The most visible part of the aura however is the next layer of the aura: the astral or emotional body, which is full of bright shades of color, expressing the nuances of human emotional life. Next are the mental body, the embodiment of concrete thoughts, and the causal body, the vehicle for abstract thought. The causal body shows itself to the clairvoyant as a beautiful soapbell-like sphere, with very tender colorings in it (the spiritual thoughts and feelings). We have reached the level of spirit here, which starts with abstract thinking, as we saw before. The 'bodies' higher than this are so subtle that the term 'body' seems to be a misnomer.


We have reviewed in this chapter a number of views of human nature. These ranged from very simple (the materialistic view) to very complex (the traditional view). Terms such as soul and spirit turned out to give rise to much confusion of thought. We have chosen the modern theosophical terminology, which speaks of monad, Ego and personality. The Ego of higher Self in particular turned out to be a threefold entity, consisting of will, intuition and abstract thought. In addition to this, an alternative description was possible: that of the subtle bodies.

In the Theosophical view of human nature, a human being is seen as sevenfold, be it as a spiritual core (monad) with seven 'bodies', or as a body with seven 'principles'.

Frank Visser, 1995, 2006

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