Saturday 8 November 2014

Where did Rudolf Steiner go wrong?

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.


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.


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.


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?


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.


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.



jP said...

" out-it-came like a ticker-tape: pedantic, literalistic, systematic, dogmatic stuff - fact upon fact upon fact - filling dozens and dozens of turgid books -"

Sounds very German!

Anonymous said...

Few people seem to be able to understand Steiner's mysticism even if they actually read Steiner. Mystically inscrutable. He WAS very drawn to Theosophy - Annie Besant and all that. But it's slant is Eastern as you know. Steiner felt he was born a Catholic, and he should find his spiritual way in Christianity. The Anthroposophical Church is very Catholic-like in form. Very.
Anthroposophists think of themselves as Christians.

Did he go wrong? Or did he just have different "stuff" to other Christian "stuff"?

I am amazed his methods of farming, education etc have lasted so long - some ideas very advanced for his time - for his time. He considered himself a scientist as you will know. But in the hard, arrid, modern secular world, Steiner Schools (Steiner schools are for the disabled, but Waldorf Schools for ordinary children) are already getting hammered for practising funny "stuff". Just like Christian Schools are being hammered.

About Waldorf Education, my own feeling is that it is out of touch with our hard, new competitive world. It produces gentle people.

I live next to a very posh school producing our future academic elite. Those privileged kids have a really hard time. I feel sorry for them sometimes. They are being prepared for life as it is now.

So, back to Steiner. His ideas survive. i don't know if he ever met Krishnamurti - Annie Besant's world saviour, but he would have known about him. Fortunately Krishnamurti turned the job dawn. He is difficult to understand too. HIS ideas survive. If you add the Christians of various kinds,and all the other love and peace groups it looks as if gentle, peaceful "stuff" is being swamped by an ugly in-your-face godless tide.

Does evolution favour gentleness?

Nicholas Fulford said...

"Does evolution favour gentleness?" - thelastfurlong

Oh how I wish it did, but alas evolution favours one thing - survival. Evolution culls the less fit with total indifference. I should not say it like that though because I am straying into anthropomorphism.

Evolution is simply Natural Selection, a bias in the universe to cull that which cannot persist and adapt sufficiently to continue to reproduce.

I don't know Steiner, though I do know Krishnamurti. I just did a quick lookup on Wikipedia to see if they had anything pithy to say, and they had this wonderful gem, the type of gem that enamoured me to Krishnamurti, probably because it resonates with my experience. When climbing up a steep mountain trail, huffing and puffing and sweating to emerge at an outlook with the wind cooling me with that wonderful sense of tingling all over, and the vista greets my eyes, and oh such ecstatic is that which possesses me, I could jump out of my skin,

"... woke up early with that strong feeling of otherness, of another world that is beyond all thought... there is a heightening of sensitivity. Sensitivity, not only to beauty but also to all other things. The blade of grass was astonishingly green; that one blade of grass contained the whole spectrum of colour; it was intense, dazzling and such a small thing, so easy to destroy...[49]"

This experience of the otherness would be present with him in daily events:

"It is strange how during one or two interviews that strength, that power filled the room. It seemed to be in one's eyes and breath. It comes into being, suddenly and most unexpectedly, with a force and intensity that is quite overpowering and at other times it's there, quietly and serenely. But it's there, whether one wants it or not. There is no possibility of getting used to it for it has never been nor will it ever be..."[49]


(Bruce, I expect that you have encountered Krishnamurti in your journey, perhaps not in person, but certainly in writing. Someday I would not reading your thoughts on him.)

I will checkout Steiner a bit to familiarize myself with his thinking and experience.

Anonymous said...

To me, the "problem" with Steiner is that he NAMED his "stuff" - so we end up with what seems very complicated, unless one becomes very familiar with the terms or moves in Steiner circles. It is not thoughtless - rather too intricate for me. Routes are prescribed for the follower of such a system.

Constricting. Confusing for the initiate.

Whereas Krishnamurti, tried to remove all that.

I find it fascinating that the two men came out of Theosophy in the same era. And are so different.
@jp said "sounds very German to me" and I think the culture might make the difference. Krishnamurti, relaxed, robed, seated, teaching by questioning the question. Steiner, formal, suited,booted with stiff collar,classifying, naming,lecturing.

Love it!

@Nicholas - in the expanse of Human cultural evolution, ideas roll over in the pandemonium of History. Yet some treasures have not been destroyed. They just become hard to find in the encrustation of words, systems, dogmas, creeds, fashion, political systems etc.

Its possible that, in the future, humans might cling onto the planet for a while longer using our exoskeleton of technology. What Steiner called - The Ahrimanic Deception Quote - "is the most important question now facing mankind, and yet it is a question that necessitates discussion of things not otherwise discussed. That is, it requires one to understand that there are other realities apart from this mundane existence on this Earth. The human mind finds it very easy to comprehend external knowledge derived from empirical sources that are considered scientific and practical. The modern consciousness recoils at anything that hints at a spiritual source and the general mien of public opinion is one of disapproval and embarrassment if such topics are raised. Thus, any discussion concerning Evil, its nature, purpose and its root cause is met with universal ridicule. However, this wholesale disapproval is merely an exoteric manifestation of a deeper problem afflicting the human race. For, Evil does exist, and it is a spiritual force of immense power that seeks to ensnare mankind and cut him off from the wellspring of Creation ... God."

Whereas Krishnamurti said Quote - "I wonder if there is such a thing as evil? Please give your attention, go with me, let us inquire together. We say there is good and evil. There is envy and love, and we say that envy is evil and love is good. Why do we divide life, calling this good and that bad, thereby creating the conflict of the opposites? Not that there is not envy, hate, brutality in the human mind and heart, an absence of compassion, love, but why do we divide life into the thing called good and the thing called evil? Is there not actually only one thing, which is a mind that is inattentive? Surely, when there is complete attention, that is, when the mind is totally aware, alert, watchful, there is no such thing as evil or good; there is only an awakened state. Goodness then is not a quality, not a virtue, it is a state of love. When there is love, there is neither good nor bad, there is only love. When you really love somebody, you are not thinking of good or bad, your whole being is filled with that love. It is only when there is the cessation of complete attention, of love, that there comes the conflict between what I am and what I should be. Then that which I am is evil, and that which I should be is the so-called good.
You watch your own mind and you will see that the moment the mind ceases to think in terms of becoming something, there is a cessation of action which is not stagnation; it is a state of total attention, which is goodness."

George said...

Do you think it is possible that he was mislead by demons (as I think Seraphim Rose would suggest)? From what little I read of his medical ideas, they have lead to strange nonsense that hurts people.

jhb said...

Bruce, hi -- I work with Steiner's researches professionally. Even so it's hard to grasp the scope of his concerns. For my needs I tried to sample all the areas of his work, about 130 volumes. The first book, "Occult Science" or better translated "The Secret (or Esoteric) Science," may be the toughest, tracing the evolution of the Earth itself back to where time begins. Of course this is what cosmologists do from a purely physical point of view; Steiner's foundation is consciousness, not matter.

Anyway, if you're interested in him as a Christian you'll have to discard the sense that a Christian is someone who conforms to the teachings of some particular church. Steiner was a researcher, not a follower. For me he reaches some essential "Christian" insights. Central, perhaps, is that the events which produced Christianity are the culmination of the ancient mysteries. We know little about them because they demanded secrecy... and then institutional Christianity found that it wished to erase any connection with them. Steiner's conclusion is that Jesus' death and resurrection was a bridge from an ancient secretive initiation into a modern process of individuation which is culminating in our own time. It's very serious inquiry into human evolution and our potential future. And it is not presented in a way that compels acceptance, rather Steiner seeks to stimulate our own inquiry. The key Steiner text for this question is "Christianity as Mystical Fact."

If he'd done nothing else, Steiner would be reckoned one of the greatest theologians. Since he did all kinds of other things, people don't see how to categorize him. For me he was, fundamentally, creating a science of consciousness to balance out the science of matter that follows on the guidance of Francis Bacon four hundred years ago. Steiner even used the term "Geistes-wissenschaft" which sadly gets translated as "spiritual science" by his enthusiasts in the English-speaking world. In German it has come to mean "the humanities." That is a big hint: if the humanities could stand up toe-to-toe with our mechanistic and materialistic natural sciences, we would have a much better balanced civilization.

Hope this is helpful.

Bruce Charlton said...

@George - No - I don't get that feeling. My sense is that when he goes to far it is from excessive logic and systematization.

@JHB - I do regard Steiner as a Christian, and as a man with exceptional spiritual insights.

But, as a package, I find him intolerable, because he always goes too far and says too much!

I find that I simply do NOT believe in the detail and precision and accuracy of his claimed revelations - I assume he indeed had some revelations, but that he also 'manufactured' revelations, and details, by means of the spiritual techniques he devised. And I do not find those spiritual techniques to be convincing, either.