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:


alexi de sadesky said...

Interesting point, Bruce. Steiner has had a tremendous impact on farming, mainly by way of a single series of lectures given in June of 1924. Organic agriculture is basically a watered down version of Steiner's Bio-dynamic system.

I simply do not respond to his ideas; although neither am I hostile to them

He was obviously a brilliant man with astonishing vision but, I can't help thinking something is way off with his philosophy. It does not speak to the truth in my heart and, when I have read him, often leaves me with an uneasy feeling.

Arakawa said...

The mixed endorsements here made my curious; a cursory Google search popped up Berdyaev complaining about Steiner:

Translating from the Berdyaev, the money criticism seems to me that Steiner belongs to that brand of theosophy which produces 'scientific' description of the angelic hierarchies and such things, without pausing to ask what all of it means or why we need to know about the invisible world at that level of detail. I'm not sure about the accuracy of Berdyaev's other criticisms, not being familiar with Steiner.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Ara - CS Lewis wrote a letter to Owen Barfield in 1940 which was a kind of formal statement of his considered views on Steiner and Anthroposophy:

"Though I reject ... the philosophy and theology of Dr Rudolf Steiner and the Anthroposophical movement, I have been intimately acquainted with some who adhere to it for over seventeen years.

"One of them is the man of all my acquiantences whose character both moral and intellectual I should put the highest, or nearly so.

"Another has written a book on education... which seems to me full of good sense.

"Another... has continued to be an excellent mother of five children...

"Believing the doctrines of Dr Steiner to be erroneous (although not more so than those of many philosophers who are more widely influential than he in modern England) and being frequently engaged in controversy with my Athroposophical friends on this subject, I believe I should have been very quick to notice any evidence that adherence to the system was producing either intellectual or moral deterioration.

"Of such evidence I have found not a shred. The friends of whom I speak are all highly educated people and I have not found anything to diminish my respect either for their characters or their capacities."

This is reassuring; although the first generation adherents to a new religion were always - by definition - formed in another religion; and so it would be interesting to compare what happened with the second generation onwards.

My vague impression us that Anthroposophy was fairly quickly corrupted by secular Leftism - at least that is how the people I knew seemed to me - just assimilated as a variety of New Age spirituality.

Owen Barfield himself was the only Inkling who seemed to embrace the sexual revolution - in later life - with adultery, then running two simultaneous long-term girlfriends - according to his biographer Simon Blaxland-de Lange.

Mike said...

John Boyd, an air force colonel, seems to have gained a lot of influence from giving long lectures and 'briefings' despite not having written much in his life time.

Hitler famously believed the spoken word was better than writing in influencing people. I believe he noted Bolshevik agitators giving speeches as being much more influential in moving along the Communist Revolution in Russia than the writings of intellectuals.