Sunday, 8 June 2014

Rudolf Steiner and the power of the lecture


Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) was an Austrian 'philosopher' - the quotes are positioned because there is not really a term for what Steiner was. He was the founder of a very large international movement which was certainly spiritual, and often functioned as a Christian, or Christianised, denomination; but also the Steiner movement created many schools and residential care centres of many types, and other things.


I have been vaguely aware of Steiner for many years: there were a couple of people in medical school who had attended a Steiner School, and one of these had parents who ran a Steiner home for mentally handicapped adults (I visited once, and it seems a wholesome and admirable place); I came across many apparently bizarre references to Steiner in Humboldt's Gift by Saul Bellow; and then my interest in The Inklings led to reading Owen Barfield.

Also, shortly after it was published in 1985, I bought and read Colin Wilson's small critical biography Rudolf Steiner: the Man and his Vision. I re-read this a couple of weeks ago; and then tried to read several essays on the topic of Angels, and some other online pieces.


My interest is in Steiner as a phenomenon - I simply do not respond to his ideas; although neither am I hostile to them - and as a phenomenon Steinerism has several very striking aspects.

One is that Steiner's biography seems to indicate that up until age the age of about forty he was a fairly minor scholar - and it was only from around 1900 that he very quickly rose to international fame and considerable influence.

And this was mainly by means of lectures: Steiner travelled all over Europe and Britain giving lectures; and these were the primary means of his influence.

As Colin Wilson puts it:

Steiner's life between 1900 and 1925 is basically a record of his travels and his lectures. In twenty-five years he delivered over six thousand lectures - an average of one lecture for every single weekday. 

There were periods when this lecturing activity seemed to rise to a frenzy, as during the period of two and a half weeks in 1924 when he delivered seventy lectures.

Wilson quotes Wolfgang Treher:

[Steiner] began to lecture. His gaze, first turned outward, seemed now and then to be turned inward. He spoke out of an inner vision. The sentences were formed while he spoke. There was power in his words.

In his words dwelt the power to awaken to life the slumbering unison of hearts. The hearts sensed something of the power of which his words were formed, and felt a strengthening of that tie which...connected them with the reality of a broader, richer world. 


My interpretation is that Steiner - who was gifted with a strong intellect, deep and wide scholarship, and many powerful and vivid intuitive and visionary experiences - was able to perform in 'real time' a relevant analysis of the problems of modern man and the modern world (which is a fairly common ability); and then communicate - via the lecture medium - a comprehensible, optimistic and satisfying vision of how things might be made better (which is much less common); and finally to link this positive motivation to seek enactment in various forms of action and organization (which is very unusual indeed).

So, some people (including those of the calibre of Owen Barfield) would attend Steiner's lectures, listen and think - and then give-up their jobs and re-locate to join-in the work of his 'movement'.

All this from the medium of 'the lecture'.


This is fascinating to me, because the lecture - or public speech - is an ancient form of communication (indeed - via the large amphitheater of Greek or Roman times - perhaps the very first mass medium) of very considerable, although currently underestimated, power. And a series of lectures by the same person has much greater possibilities yet.

Steiner is evidence of this - and of the capacity of lectures - which are merely an amplified form of person-to-person communication - to build an international movement and institutional organization even in the modern age of mass communications.


Another example was Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose fame and impact were rooted in his abilities and activities as a lecturer (not as a writer).

And I think the method and effect of Emerson can perhaps be glimpsed in the style of the recent Mormon Apostle, Neal A Maxwell:


My feeling is that mainstream modernity is hostile to 'the lecture' in its classic form - and is continually subverting it with the written word, with 'visual aids', with internet pre-summaries... with a multitude of encouragements NOT to pay attention here-and-now.

This is perhaps mostly because the real lecture cannot be 'managed' - and relies on a specific person at a specific place and time with a specific audience.

Yet (and this may be a clue about the hostility) it may be that lectures could be, already are, or will become the basis of the next major international movement against Leftist modernity and in favour of traditional and religious values - because lectures are a direct and person means of communication which does not depend upon the modern Mass Media and can, therefore, act outside-of and against the Mass Media.


Reference to my 2006 essay on lectures as a teaching medium: