Tuesday, 30 October 2018

Rudolf Steiner's copius blethering about initiation and spiritual training

Rudolf Steiner was a first rank genius, whose insights are all-but indispensable; but there is no mystery about why his achievement is not more widely appreciated. The fact is that the bulk of his writings are nonsense and blether.

The nonsense is perhaps most obvious - I mean the truly vast volume of material purporting to provide detailed factual information on everything under the sun - and indeed concerning the sun itself, and planets too - the universe and everything in it. Perhaps the culmination was the eight volumes of lectures on Karmic Relationships, purporting to describe the several reincarnations of famous historical figures - following each spirit through these incarnations.

Then there are systems of education, medicine, agriculture and so forth. (And architecture - but I find Steiner's architecture and sculpture to be viscerally horrible - esepcially the current Goetheanum and surrpounding buildings.) Having evaluated a fair sample of such books, I now simply avoid them. For instance, I have spent most of my life reading, thinking, practising medicine and education; and Steiner's writings on these medicine strike me as wrong at every level, while the writing on education in mostly-wrong. Both are crudely systematised in a way that Steiner himself taught me to recognise as Ahrimanic; i.e. materialistic and bureaucratic.

(However, Steiner's early writings on science are absolutely brilliant!)

So much for the nonsense - what of the blether? Well, another problem is that even in some of Steiner's most valuable books/ lectures post-1894 - works on themes of consciousness, thinking, attaining human destiny - writings that contain material I am very keen to understand, on a topic in which Steiner has unique value - there is a tendency for him to launch into screeds of blether.

Especially so concerning (supposed) initiation and his (suggested) methods of spiritual training. To be candid; I regard this material of Steiner's as being mostly a mixture of wishful thinking and dishonesty. As I read, my bullshit-detectors are continually sounding...

I shall give an extended example. The Stages of Higher Knowledge (1905) is a book that contains much wisdom and many insights - it is not a book that I can ignore. There are three main themes: Imagination, Inspiration and Intuition. The lectures on Imagination and Intuition have considerable value, in my opinion. However, the lecture on Inspiration I find to be almost entirely bogus.

I would advise the reader to follow the link, and read for himself - but I will cite a few passages of the kind that set-off my alarm bells:

Occult training therefore undertakes to indicate how the human being may make his feelings and his will impulses productive in a healthy way for Inspiration. As in all matters of occult training, the need here is for an intimate regulating and forming of soul life. First of all certain feelings must be developed which are known only to a slight degree in ordinary life. Some of these feelings will be hinted at here. Among the most important is a heightened sensitiveness to “truth” and “falsehood,” to “right” and “wrong.” Certainly the ordinary human being has similar feelings, but they must be developed by the occult student in a much higher measure. Suppose someone has made a logical error. Another sees this mistake and corrects it. Let it be clear how great is the role of judgment and intellect in such a correction, and how slight the feeling of pleasure in the right and displeasure in the wrong. Surely this is not to claim that the pleasure and corresponding displeasure are non-existent. But the degree to which they are present in ordinary life must be illimitably raised in occult training. Most systematically must the occult student turn his attention to his soul life, and he must bring it about that logical error is a source of pain to him, no less excruciating than physical pain, and conversely, that the “right” gives him real joy and delight. Thus, where another only stirs his intellect, his power of judgment, into motion, the occult student must learn to live through the whole gamut of emotions, from grief to enthusiasm, from afflictive tension to transports of delight in the possession of truth. In fact, he must learn to feel something like hatred against what the “normal” man experiences only in a cold and sober way as “incorrect”; he must enkindle in himself a love of truth that bears a personal character; as personal, as warm, as the lover feels for the beloved.

I find this dishonest; because this does not describe how Steiner himself attained Inspiration - he actually did it primarily via the insights into thinking from his early philosophical and scientific studies culminating in The Philosophy of Freedom (1894). Yet when Steiner wrote the Stages of Higher Knowledge he had been involved in teaching, through the Theosophical Society, only a few years. I know of no evidence that any of his pupils at this time - or indeed at any time, achieved anything like the level of higher consciousness that Steiner achieved. Indeed, in the past century of Anthroposophy, the only individuals who seem to have attained anything like Steiner's level of insight - Valentin Tomberg and Owen Barfeld - both did so largely independently of Steiner, via philosophical study, and without this 'training'. 

As a test, he must patiently, over and over again, place before himself this or that “true” thing, this or that “false” one, and devote himself to it, not merely to train his power of judgment for sober discrimination between “true” and “false,” but he must gain an entirely personal relation to it all. — It is absolutely correct that at the beginning of such training the human being can fall into what may be called “oversensitiveness.” An incorrect judgment that he hears in his environment, an inconsistency, and so forth, can cause him almost unbearable pain. — Care must therefore be taken in this respect during training. Otherwise great dangers might indeed result for the student's equilibrium of soul. If care is taken that the character remains steadfast, storms may occur in the soul life and the human being still retain the power to conduct himself toward the outer world with harmonious countenance and bearing. A mistake is made in every case in which the occult student is brought into opposition to the outer world so that he finds it unbearable or wishes to flee from it entirely. The higher world of feeling must not be cultivated at the expense of well-balanced activity and work in the outer world; therefore a strengthening of the power to withstand outer impressions must appear in corresponding measure to the inner lifting of the feeling life.

This strikes me as just made-up-stuff; abstract and confused, over-dramatic and sensational; and nothing to do with actual students following any actual course of training. And there is this business of 'power'...

Practical occult training, therefore, directs the human being never to undertake the above-mentioned exercises for developing the feeling world without at the same time developing himself toward an appreciation of the tolerance that life demands from men. He must be able to feel the keenest pain if a person utters an erroneous opinion, and yet at the same time be perfectly tolerant towards this person because the thought in his mind is equally clear that this person is bound to judge in this way, and his opinion must be reckoned with as a fact. — It is, of course, correct that the inner being of the occult scientist will be ever more and more transformed into a twofold life. Ever richer processes come about in his soul in his pilgrimage through life, and a second world becomes continually more independent of what the outer world offers. It is just this twofold existence that will bear fruit in the genuine practice of life. What results from it is quick-witted judgment and unerring certainty of decision. While anyone who stands remote from such schooling must go through long trains of thought, driven hither and thither between resolution and perplexity, the occult scientist will swiftly survey life situations and discern hidden relations concealed from the ordinary view. He then often needs much patience to synchronise with the slow rate at which another person is able to grasp something that for him comes swift as an arrow.

Who is this 'occult scientist'? Steiner is talking as if from long experience of many people going through a prolonged, careful, closely-supervised training that has been successful - yet this cannot have been the case. And anyway, the whole way this is written strikes me as strongly pretentious; more like indirect moral self-advertisement than a genuine attempt to be helpful. 

Take, for instance, a feeling of anxiety or fear. It can be crystal clear that often fear or anxiety is greater than it would be if it were in true proportion to the corresponding outer event. Imagine that the occult student is working energetically on himself with the aim to feel in no instance more fear and anxiety than is justified by the corresponding external events. Now a given amount of fear or anxiety always entails an expenditure of soul force. This soul force is actually lost as a result when fear or anxiety is produced. The student really conserves this soul force when he denies himself fear or anxiety — or other such feelings — and it remains at his disposal for some other purpose. If he repeats such processes often, he will build up an inner treasure of these continually husbanded soul forces, and the occult student will soon find that out of such economies of feeling will arise the germs of those inner images that will bring to expression the revelations of a higher life.

This 'soul force' is what I mean by inappropriate materialism and systematisation - it is a false precision; and indeed it doesn't sound plausible that any such thing exists at all. Students promised that they may conserve, build, be able to direct and use accumulations of soul force? No, this has a distinct flavour of misleading manipulation. 

But it would not accomplish much to remain at a standstill with only such economies as those indicated above. For greater results, still more is necessary. A far greater treasure still of power to create feeling must be supplied to the soul than is possible in this way alone. For instance, as a test, one must expose oneself to certain outer impressions, and then wholly deny oneself the feelings that “normally” arise as a result. One must, for instance, face an occurrence that “normally” excites the soul, and absolutely and totally forbid oneself the excitation. This can be accomplished either by actually confronting such an experience, or by conjuring it up imaginatively. The imaginative method is even better for a really fruitful occult training. As the student is initiated into Imagination, either before his preparation for Inspiration or simultaneously with it, he should actually be in a position to place an occurrence imaginatively before the soul with the same force as if it were in fact taking place.

Initiation rears its ugly head. Steiner talks as if there are established schools of initiation, taking students through incremental steps towards higher consciousness and greater 'power'. Force and power... Yet there are no such students, and the only school of initiation is the one that Steiner is in the process of setting-up.

Now the soul powers that are stored up in the student's inner being by self-denial of “normal” feelings, as indicated above, are riches that would undoubtedly be transformed into Inspirations even if nothing else came to their aid, and the occult student would experience how true thought images arise in his soul, representing experiences in higher worlds. Progress would begin with the simplest experiences of supersensible events, and slowly more complicated and higher ones appear, if the student continued to live inwardly according to the suggested directions. — But in reality such occult training today would be entirely impractical, and nowhere is it carried out where work is undertaken earnestly. For, if the student wished to develop “out of himself” everything that Inspiration can give, he could undoubtedly “spin out” of himself all that has been said here, for example, about the nature of man, human life after death, the evolution of humanity and of the planets, and so forth. But such a student would need an immeasurably long time to do it.

Again, we are given the impression of an established, reliable, valid system - in place - indeed operating in several places; and with a large experience of the various problems and pitfalls. The student has only to follow the instructions patiently, earnestly. But if he does not - if he goes it alone, or studies with anytbody other than Steiner; then his progress will be hazardous, and immeasurably slow...

In any case no hope can be given that he will make rapid conquests in the higher worlds through any exercises whatever, unless he has at the same time set out to ponder incessantly upon the communications, purely narrative, that have been given from a competent quarter about the events and beings of the higher worlds. — Now that such communications are actually being presented in literature and in lectures, and so forth, and the first indications are also being given for the exercises leading to knowledge of higher worlds (as, for example, such indications as are presented in Knowledge of the Higher Worlds and Its Attainment), it has now become possible to learn something of what formerly was communicated only in strictly guarded occult schools. As has been frequently mentioned, it is owing to the special conditions of our time that these things are and must be published. But also, on the other hand, it must be ever again emphasised that while it has thus been made easier to acquire occult knowledge, sure guidance through an experienced occult teacher is not yet to be completely dispensed with.

"it has now become possible to learn something of what formerly was communicated only in strictly guarded occult schools"... Well, this is a concentrated example of what I mean by blethering bullshit. Steiner is engaged in a 'soft sell' here; creating a framework of hopes and warnings, all of which point at what he, uniquely, promises to provide. Yet, a century later, we can see that Steiner could not provide what he promised (or else nobody was able to follow the path prescribed).

Anthroposophy was supposed to be a path, a way, a spiritual process - and Steiner was here purporting to describe this path. But the method did not work - and instead Anthroposophy has become the preservation, study, learning and implementation of all of Steiner's findings/ assertions.

There was no method of training, initiation was a fantasy; then, as now, we do this alone - or not at all.


David Burgin said...

Early 20th century esoteric thinkers seem to have been very preoccupied with "initiation." You see it in Guenon and the Traditionalists, too. Also, the various occult groups like the Golden Dawn and its offshoots. I suspect the influence of Masonry is part of this. But mostly I think it stems from the hope that somewhere there is some secret group of people who have it completely figured out and all you have to do is find them and they can spoon-feed you spiritual enlightenment. There was also the matter of various gurus trying to make their teachings seem like more than one person making stuff up. They would claim (or hint) that they had traveled to the Himalayas (Blavatsky) or stumbled across remote monasteries (Gurdjieff seemed to hint at this).

Anyway, with regard to Steiner. I find that in his actual *books* (as opposed to lecture collections) there is some good material. His lectures often sound meaningful and profound while you are actually reading them, but after putting the book down, you realize you don't really know much more than you did before. My understanding is that he spoke without notes or an outline, so you are just getting him riffing off the top of head.

But, yes, we are on our own, and I think a longing for "initiation" today is likely to lead people to seek out charlatan-led New Agey groups.

a_probst said...

If I had come upon this without any prompting or framing by you I would have been asking every few sentences, "How does he know?" and by the end I'd have asked, "If these regimens are so effective why isn't the world a very different place now if people had been applying them for the past century?"

Large chunks of the text could be highlighted, copied, and pasted--after substituting 'apprentice' for 'occult student'--into a Star Wars novel to fill out passages about Jedi training.

Chiu ChunLing said...

Steiner is largely correct on every point you have disputed.

He is wrong overall because he is pursuing occultism rather than warning against it. Occultism is inherently dangerous even within the context of explicit and committed Christianity, it is virtually suicidal (often literally, but more so spiritually) outside the protection of deep Christian faith.

Steiner himself seems to have escaped with relatively light consequences. Indeed, it is possible that he is being dishonest here in that what is provided is not a guide to occultism but intentionally only a package of warnings and inhibitions which deter would-be occultists from making any real progress. While in general I don't approve such methods they sometimes have practical value. The general tenor of Steiner's time may have been such that providing a 'flytrap' occult training which would tend to blunt the ambitions of study of the occult was of real value...I myself have no interest in examining the matter as it is not especially relevant to my own duties.

But overall, I'm inclined to rate his 'failure' to guide many students deep into occultism as better than success in such an endeavor, whether the failure was genuine or intentional.