Saturday, 8 November 2014

Where did Rudolf Steiner go wrong?

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I have read a couple of books about Rudlof Steiner (1861-1925) the Austrian philosopher and founder of Anthroposophy, and made some effort to sample from some of his scores of books.

I have known of Steiner's for many years - indeed I once visited a friend whose parents ran a Steiner residential home for mentally disabled adults, and it seemed like an excellent institution. Most recently, I have engaged with Steiner's work a little more deeply due to reading Owen Barfield - CS Lewis's best friend, and an Inkling.

Anyway, I think I have now read enough to form some kind of evaluation of Steiner; enough to know that I don't really want to read much more - because I have not got much benefit from him.

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In the first place, I am convinced Steiner was a real genius. The account of his life makes clear he was a man of really remarkable understanding and ability and creativity - and a gifted leader.

Furthermore, he had an extraordinary spiritual capacity - and an unusual one, in that his spiritual insights seem to have been more or less continuous, and happening in clear and alert consciousness, with full retention of his very logical and thorough analytic intellect.

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I was surprised to find that Steiner was a Christian, or at least believed himself to be.

In his early forties he had a born-again, personal experience of the central importance of Christ's life and death to the history of everything and the future of man.

Aside from that minimal Christian core, much of the rest that he believed about Christ was... idiosyncractic; but I would say that he was a devout Christian of sorts, for the last main part of his life.

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But the solid core of insightful Christian mysticism in Steiner, and his range of contributions to alternative medicine, education, horticulture and what-not - are diluted and swamped by all kinds of complicated and systematized details which he regarded as spiritually validated.

A vast quantity of sheerly arbitrary and silly stuff, on every topic under the sun and beyond it, makes-up the bulk of what Steiner wrote (and spoke in thousands of lectures) - mainly in the last 20-25 years of his life.

(I could not summarize this, and even to think about writing about it is embarrassing - if you don't already know, then look it up for yourselves.)

So what went wrong? How did a spiritual genius, and a Christian, come up with this stuff?

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I think it was because Steiner devised a method.

Spiritual insight was natural to him, and needed no forcing; but Steiner wanted to be able to train everybody else in this method - so he seems to have taught and used a way of 'spiritually' generating answers to any question he wanted to know, or which anybody asked him, on any subject.

Steiner treated himself as if fundamental knowledge of reality was something 'on-tap'. He would merely need to enquire, and out-it-came like a ticker-tape: pedantic, literalistic, systematic, dogmatic stuff - fact upon fact upon fact - filling dozens and dozens of turgid books - take-it-or-leave it.

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In the end, Steiner made it almost impossible to do anything but accept him as an infallible prophet, or reject him lock-stock-and-barrel.

I enjoyed both books about Steiner, and would recommend them - they were by Colin Wilson and Gary Lachman; but I did not enjoy it when I then turned to Rudolf Steiner himself, and read (or tried to read) the man himself.

My conclusion is that Wilson and Lachman have read Steiner, so I don't have-to.  

I am convinced that there are many genuine, inspired insights scattered through Steiner's work - and that he was basically a very good man; but frankly, sifting through the reams and reams of turgid nonsense is just not worth the effort.

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