Sunday 4 July 2021

A note on the biographies of Rudolf Steiner

I have read several biographies of Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) - including his partial Autobiography, which I would recommend (albeit it is not factually reliable, but more of an apologia working from the covert agenda of explaining 'why I was always right').

However, none of the biographies greatly impressed me so far except for volume two of Peter Selg's seven (!) volume study; which is that covering the years 1890-1900. 

This was the period after Steiner finished University and began seven years of editorial work on a collected edition of Goethe's scientific writings, in Weimar; then moved to become a journalist in Berlin.

This is also the period when Steiner wrote his PhD thesis (now published as Truth and Knowledge) and his major philosophical work The Philosophy of Freedom

It was also the period when he began his remarkable career as a lecturer, and (around 1898) became a Christian. This was a major and sudden change, since up to the early 1890s, Steiner was apparently anti-Christian (according to his writings), moving in radical anarchist circles; also deeply engaged with the work of Nietzsche (befriending for a while Nietzsche's sister, and meeting the mute and demented philosopher; and having published a book about him in 1895). 

I am currently reading the first volume of Selg's biography (1861-90) having read all but one of the later volumes). So far there is very little detail beyond what was reported by Steiner retrospectively and many years later. 

Indeed, his early years are extraordinarily poorly documented, for such a famous and influential man. It seems that none of his thousands of disciples made any serious attempt to collect information while he was alive or just after. Or perhaps enough effort has not yet been made?

But I am looking forward to the later years, from when Steiner studied at the Vienna Institute of Technology; where I anticipate more in the way of external corroboration from independent sources. 

In general, nobody has so far been much interested in Steiner except for his followers (Colin Wilson and Gary Lachman's overviews probably make the best starting point); and Anthroposophists seem incurious to seek beyond what Steiner himself said about himself. This is not difficult to understand, given the past and continuing attitude to Steiner within the Anthroposophical Society... 

In Steiner circles, he is not really seen as a Man - but as something more like an angel or deity whose entire vast work is necessarily necessary, coherent and of timeless relevance. It would be blasphemous for any normal person to select-from, critique, let alone criticize, such an individual. 

For example, Stanley Messenger was asked in the Q&A after a talk whether Steiner had ever made an error; and SM was unable or unwilling to mention even one instance - but instead said that Steiner may sometimes have been misunderstood. 

Even Owen Barfield - a major genius in his own right, as well as (probably) Steiner's greatest follower and developer - never (to my knowledge, in print) allowed himself to reject anything ever written by Steiner; the furthest OB would go was to state that he did not speak about that which he had not, yet, confirmed. 

So, I am not exaggerating. And this attitude serves to maintain the near-total neglect of Steiner, who was certainly a major genius and of vital relevance to these times; but who (to one outside the charmed circle) was a also flawed character, most of whose work outside of philosophy and the history of consciousness can and should be ignored or set-aside.  

Nonetheless, as a major genius with such vital things to say; I find myself driven to continue exploring Steiner's biography, through the available channels; and to draw my own conclusions. 


Hrothgar said...

Unfortunate that his followers comprise an actual cult. The behaviour and attitude of the Steiner-idolizers I have encountered in my time served for years as a very effective prophylactic against actually paying attention to what the man himself might have thought or said, let alone reading any of his books. I have more recently begun to revise my position mainly as a result of reading your commentary on him - and am glad you managed to overcome the formidable repelling effect of his followers sufficiently to investigate for yourself and report your findings!

The first confirmed cultist I remember encountering was some kind of Anthroposophical therapist to whom I was unwise enough to make a very casual joke about her idol - not knowing, naturally, that he was her actual idol, and that JOKING about the Holy and Blessed Steiner was therefore a deeply sacreligious and evil act.

I have met some unpleasant people in my time, many of whom were probably far worse than her in ordinary human terms - but have never experienced such sustained, visceral, enraged, fixated, and very personal hatred as I had directed at me over the several months in which I subsequently had to interact with her, despite my best efforts at reconcilliation. I don't think anything I could have said or done would have made it better at that point, though.

Moonsphere said...

It is said that the complete works of Rudolf Steiner would take up more than 30 feet of bookshelf space.

How fortunate I was that my own collection exceeded 10 feet before I ever encountered another person who had even heard of Rudolf Steiner. Indeed, in those early years - it seemed that I was the only person in the world who was reading him!

Now that I know of the many ways one can be put off before even starting - I am truly thankful I did not meet such hindrances.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Moons - Sounds ideal!

The way I think about Steiner is that there are two paths. The correct one is to think in the way that Steiner elucidated and recommended - and apply this mode of thinking to evaluate Steiner's own thousands of assertions.

The false (and usual) path is to learn and believe 'everything' Steiner ever said or wrote on every subject (all his thousands of assertions). And, if necessary, adjust one's thinking to make this possible.

Moonsphere said...

Yes, that sounds about right Bruce.

I would say though, in ideal circumstances - one should allow oneself to surf that initial wave of enthusiasm for as long as possible - in my case around seven years. I think "reverence" towards the teacher is the ideal outcome of this first phase. At that point, it is healthy to then start to question and yes even take a more critical view.

Sadly there are many who, perhaps crushed by the magnitude of his revelations, develop an attitude which may seem like reverence but is closer to the slavish group mentality about which you often write.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Moons - I agree that in order to understand someone, it is necessary to suspend critical faculties and take an absorptive attitude. If we question and criticize every step of the way, we will remain trapped by our established assumptions.

- As when a materialist atheist questions a Christian, and questions every statement from the Christian - the atheist will always be confirmed in his atheism because he will never recognize his own assumptions from-which atheism is inevitable - but which assumptions are, nonetheless, incoherent.

But I can't see much benefit in somebody doing this when approaching Steiner via, say, his ideas on education or medicine; or social threefolding, or those endless discussions in Karmic Relationships. To absorb this kind of factual assertion is wrong - although even there, it may be a valuable learning experience.

For example, I find that reading Steiner's ideas about education or medicine - areas in which I have considerable experience and have given serious thought to - I am continually internally responding with No. Wrong. and even a sense that the whole framework and enterprise is wrong.

Usually, because much too Ahrimanic - 'factual', systemic, abstract - in an 'intellectual soul'/ medieval fashion. Steiner was his own worst enemy in terms of someone who has found a vital insight and nourishment from The Philosophy of Freedom and the ideas of Barfield about Final Participation - since again and again he is pointing backwards towards the systemic abstractions of the Intellectual Soul - which are ineffective for modern Man, and lead on to committee-thinking and bureaucracy (as has happened ++ with Steiner's legacy).

Someone who went into Steiner in the wrong place would be drawn in that direction. This is why approaching Steiner via Barfield can be much more likely to be useful. Barfield's focus was one which begins from the most vital and urgent concerns of modern Man - alienation, bureaucracy, lack of meaning or purpose...

Steiner had much wider scope than Barfield - but it is within this wider scope that most of the problems with Steiner are most concentrated.

Moonsphere said...

@Bruce, yes in full agreement regards the need for an absorptive attitude when approaching new material.

I think the key difference between our reactions to Steiner is probably your academic temperament and my own mystical tendencies. The missing 15 feet of my Steiner collection likely consists of much that you have grappled with and that I being less academically inclined have not. This would include the areas of education, medicine, etc.

Another clue is that you were capable of understanding "The Philosophy of Freedom" at the beginning of your study of Steiner. But for myself, it would take years before I could even grapple with it and start to see its value. And yet his later teachings, some which are considered "difficult", resonated strongly with me from day one.

A final point of difference might be that you have a rival spiritual worldview which has necessarily made your encounter with Steiner that bit more combative! As far as I understand, Steiner's teachings about the life after death, reincarnation, etc stand in opposition to much that you hold to be true. And then there is his systematisation... But we do share an appreciation for his ability to shine a light on the current evil world situation.

So, I have perhaps had the easier go of it in many ways. These days I am primarily interested in the Christian element of Steiner's teachings, which led me to Valentin Tomberg, the astrosophy of Robert Powell, and some contemporary seers such as Estelle Isaacson.

On the subject of Barfield, one of my favourite books is "History in English Words". And yet that is where I stopped - for some reason his other books on my shelf remain unread. Perhaps it is time for me to dust them off and do some reading!

captOBV said...

I've tried to read Steiner's Philosophy of Freedom but it struck me as an overly wordy "free will is real man" treatise and since I never doubted that it is but have ever been a dreaded "Pelagian" I just couldn't get onto it. Erasmus' Hyperaspistes is more my style. And perhaps the reason why is Erasmus goes by reason and philosophy, whereas Steiner eants to insist he is "scientific" ("scientific", that mental illness of modernity), and I couldn't care less about what is "scientific" or not, so Steiner's Faucian "trust the science" mantra is offputting. I'd rather reason through the issue with logic and philosophy enlightened by Erasmian snark.

Bruce Charlton said...

@cO - Well, it is not easy to read nor relevant to everybody - but you haven't understood it! I only really 'got' it after reading truth and Knowledge first, and also Otto Palmer's books of Steiner's comments on PoF. I've moved on a bit from PoF myself these days - but I don't think I could have got to where I am without PoF to move me in that direction.

Nigel Perks said...

I'm sure I read that George Adams (translator of "Occult Science", writer on "projective geometry") was asked if Steiner made errors, and said that a science lecture had "schoolboy howlers". But I can't find it online. I found this very interesting, a counter to credulity, from a prominent follower.

Bruce Charlton said...

@NP - Well, this kind of discernment is what would be expected in any 'normal' situation. It is the fact that such basic discernment is so rare, and so often regarded as shocking, which is so concerning about so many Steinerites!

This passive, obedient, 'following' attitude also renders Anthroposophists vulnerable to corruption of the Anthroposophical Society - when they ought to be independent thinkers.

And indeed some (few) Anthroposophists are indeed among the exemplary thinkers of the past year and a half - as can be seen in such Steiner magazines as New View and the Present Age, and the work of Jeremy Naydler, Terry Boardman, Richard Ramsbotham and some others. Here I have found some of the best published analysis of the birdemic-peck phenomenon (and what led up to it) - *despite* their complete absence of *any* expression of explicit dissent from Steiner!