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 Summer 2008 issue #14

The Smell of Life and Death by Cornelis van Dalen
The sense of morality and ethics

This is a story of sense and perception. Human perceptions come through and are of the senses. We consider we have only five senses, for which there are the obvious organs: sight, taste, touch, hearing, and smell. Closer examination will reveal an additional seven senses making the human a being of twelve senses, but that is for a later discussion. For now I wish to direct your attention to a big stink in the world of science.

In May 2008, the parliamentarians of House of Commons in London sat in judgement of proposed legislation to amend the Human Fertilisation & Embryology Act, 1990. The content of this act and the proposed amendments have far-reaching ethical and moral considerations. Essentially the proposal was to allow the creation animal-human embryos; lower the time of permissible abortions and grant sovereignty to the donor of semen in IVF procedures when no male is present. The parliamentary members voted not with their noses but with their abstract minds. Not with their noses?

The media is constantly seeking to mould your ethical outlook. Press releases from scientific communities routinely put forward well-crafted arguments for media publication. Provocative images of shock and horror to which we have all become accustomed is another tried and tested method of establishing your outlook on life. When the scientific community decide they wish to do the unthinkable, for example on animal-human embryo creation, they rewrite the ethics code by canvassing people’s opinion on the matter after a period of media massaging has been undertaken. Today ethics is consensus; morality is decency lowered to commonality.
What are the origins of ethics and morals? Ethics and morality is one of the most challenging dilemmas facing philosophers or pursuers of wisdom. It is here contended that moral and ethical life is slipping into a morass. In previous ages ethics and morality were the secret language of the Gods, passed onto the enlightened spiritual leaders of men. This was later enshrined in what we call religion, which in turn became the law of the state. Now a person must come to recognise what conscience is and so learn to live by one’s conscience in a world that is challenging the very basis life. We need to develop a sense of morality and an organ of moral judgement, of conscience.

The sense of smell
To smell you have to take something in. You are not dealing with a boundary with smell. With the sense of touch you become conscious of a part of yourself, but this is opposite to the sense of smell. With smell you do not run into something but have a feeling of being overpowered, overwhelmed. When there is an odour, you cannot avoid it. With breathing comes smell; you are forced to smell.

People become more decent human beings through the sense of smell. Consider the matter of hygiene – of cleanliness. ‘That’s nice’ or ‘that’s not nice’ comes to us through the sense of smell. “The Great Stink”, as it was called in London in 1858, occurred when the stench of human waste being flushed into the river Thames was so great in Westminster where Parliament sat, that it considered relocating outside of the city of London. They draped sheets soaked in chloride of lime on the windows of the House of Commons to sweeten the air. In the end the politicians were forced to adopt a new law of parliament to create London’s sewer system, which it had been postponing for many years. The new sewers brought untold benefits to urban living – clean streets, clean drinking water, clean houses. Epidemics, such as waterborne diseases like cholera and typhoid, came to an end. The greatest advance in human health and living came about through the sense of smell.

When you are overwhelmed by smell, you lose some of your consciousness. You cannot talk to others or perform mental work. Your whole being is permeated by smell. To be permeated by the perfume of the rose is elevating, to be permeated by the smell of decomposing flesh is decidedly the opposite. The London press reported “The Great Stink” thus: “The gentility of speech is at an end – it stinks; and whosoever once inhales the stink can never forget it and can count himself lucky if he lives to remember it.” [1]

A nose or a snout
No one really asks what is the sense of smell and why dogs differ in this ability or function. How does smelling take place and what is perceived? This is the prime question.

There is a stupefying effect from being in the constant presence of smell or odour. After a few moments in a smelly room, you no longer notice it. This is very telling of people who work in smelly places like factories, garbage collection and so forth. Even passengers in crowded trains can’t smell body odour any longer. In hospitals there is a pervading odour of cleaning agents, surgical spirits, sickness and despair. But also the smell of death!

But the sense of smell is soon neutralised by the organ of smell – the nose. We become used to an odour. In an enclosed space, for example, we become quickly accustomed to the smell unless we leave the room and then re-enter.

Animals are different here. They have a very well developed sense of smell. Dogs for example can smell all the time, their nostrils constantly sniffing. A dog can stand in one spot for minutes, concentrating on the symphony of odours left by another – seemingly entranced, no doubt decoding the message: ‘Meet me behind the garden shed, signed Blake.’ Yes, we know, Purdey!

An animal is all nose, especially a dog. They can smell a whole array of odours which we as humans are oblivious to. It could be described as a whole symphony of odours. The dog can follow any specific smell and not lose it, not tire of it, not become oblivious to it as we do.

Smell of the sick
Domesticated dogs have been employed for various roles in life based on their sniffing abilities: the hunt for food, the finding of the lost, as well as tending animals and so forth. The ever-present companionship of dogs has been part of human life for thousands of years. Someone even suggested dogs were responsible for the civilisation of humans!

Dogs have also been trained to detect cancer in humans. [2] The crux is that conditions such as cancer have an odour – ‘they smell bad.’ The usual scientific scepticism takes over, even though tests and trials with the trained dogs showed a greater success rate in detection than high-tech equipment costing a million pounds. Additionally, the dogs could detect a cancerous presence before its manifestation/detection, it is maintained.

Some practitioners of medicine do specialise in smell. In traditional Chinese medicine there are olfactory specialists. They smell odours and discharges, know the disease and which organ is in disarray. They smell shoes and know what is the matter with the owner of the shoe. In our technologically driven medical business, the sense of smell is not given any attention in the diagnosis of the sick, even though in a few people the sense of smell is acute and could be developed to diagnose the illness.

The old-school family physician was said to smell the breath when he asked the patient to say aaaaahhhh, and not only look at the tongue, tonsils or throat. A disease is a disorder which has a smell.

Smell and instinct
With animals the sense of smell is related to what we call instinct. Instinct specifically utilizes smell. Animals have a direct connection with the earth; salmon return to the same spawning river through smell of location; an animal knows where it is born through smell. We remember things through the eye or ear – but animals remember through the nose.

There are two opposites: instinct and smell, on the one hand, and intellect on the other, which has become independent from Nature – we term this knowledge. In lower animals the nose knows all there is to know. [3] In man this kind of instinctive knowledge has been lost. We need to relearn with the splendid organ, the forebrain. One notes also that in higher animals the nose becomes smaller and smaller.

The faculty of the nose – the sense of smell – is quite unconscious. Can we name odours that are equivalent to tastes – bitter, salty, sweet or sour? We cannot name smells the same. We are asleep to the sense of smell and have to make up classifications. Either it smells good or it is bad. The bouquet of wine for example is often related to other known smells – of herbs, fruit, and flowers and such like. The perfume industry has linked instinct with smell – of sex drive and attraction, but not the moral aspect. [4]

Animals know what is good and bad through smell. With us, we relate to smell as the foundation of morality. Without smell we could never have moral judgement. Odour compels us to judge: ‘it stinks’, ‘I smell a rat’, and so forth. Paradise has a definite odour; in a desire to dwell in paradise we imagine delightful scents, as also found in temples and incense used in churches. We do not worship in the sewers, even though the highest things often come from manure if one considers the alchemist’s use of manure, or the preparation of compost vital to soil life.

Occult history tells us that originally man had as primary organ that of smell. Man was in contact with the gods through smell. The organ changed through evolution and the forebrain organ shrank to its present size. In future, this will change again. The ancient Egyptians knew that the Hierarchies of the Gods pass judgement on humans at the time of passing through the gate of death with the sense of smell. No other sense penetrates the sense of morality.

Man’s moral contact with the world comes about by the sense of smell. We need now, more than ever before, to develop the sense of smell, as we are having a hard time with morality. Only man has a nose; in animals they have a snout. People’s nose is characteristic of them. Your nose is characteristic of you. In theatre and in film this fact is often used for an actor to change themselves into another character. Historically, a condemned person had a red nose to hide his identity and was taken in a cart wearing a white gown to the place of execution or punishment. The clown and red nose uses the same trick of annihilating identity.

Morals and ethics – where to now?
The way of moral judgement or instinct is through smell, but we have forgotten why. It is like the answer ‘42’ in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy where the question has been forgotten. Our intellect has become independent from the Cosmic, the source of all life; this is part of evolution and it entails estrangement from the Cosmic in order to develop new faculties.

One could well say that there is a deep cleft between the pole of natural necessity and that of moral necessity. It is indicative of the debate before parliament which introduced this article on the ethics of animal-human embryos, ethics of abortions, ethics of artificial insemination (now termed IVF), ethics of genetic modification of plants, and more, that man has no knowledge of how the former ethical and moral position entered his soul. Neither is he aware of the way human soul life has been gradually de-spiritualised in the past 2000 years.

The position this writer takes is that material science in its increasing grasp on all matters of life, bring the higher senses of ethics and morality into a destructive influence on all of life, because science does not form a bridge to the higher conception of life. Man has to develop new sense organ based on morality – an individual morality, a conscience which is smell as a higher organ.

©Cornelis van Dalen 2008

1. As quoted in ‘The big stench that saved London,’ by Paul Simons, The Times, London. June 17, 2008
2. The Sunday Times November 6, 2005.
3. One can hardly hide the etymology of nose and knows!
4. There may be disagreement here: if asked to described the smell of a rose, one would call it sweet, delicate, and then perhaps lemony, rich, heady; in the same way as the taste of food, e.g. raspberry – sweet with a dash of sour, etc. but in both cases there are equivalent limitations in describing the full reality.
Dr Albert Soesman, The Twelve Senses, Wellsprings of the Soul, Hawthorn Press, UK. 1990
Rudolf Steiner, Man as a Being of Sense and Perception, Steiner Book Centre, Canada. 1981

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