Sunday, 25 November 2018

The problem of Rudolf Steiner and the Anthroposophical Society

I continue to engage with the work of Rudolf Steiner, and continue to find him to be A Problem!

In the first place, it is important to acknowledge that the problem arises from the fact that Steiner was a genius of first rank importance in our cultural history - and therefore is thoroughly deserving of the most careful and sustained consideration.

To put it the other way around; it would be hazardous to leave-out Steiner from our thinking. He is certainly not indispensable; but we, at least, would each need to discover Steiner's contribution from other, often related and influenced-by sources (such as, in my experience, Barfield and Arkle; and Mormon theology) plus personal meditation.

But - within the overall context that Steiner is someone who made a deep and vital contribution; he comes-across as one of the most maddening and off-putting of writers!

I think this is due to the unfortunate historical fact that Steiner built an organisation, a movement, around his philosophy - the Anthroposophical Society; and that this became an institution; and that this institution has become the sole source of Steiner's legacy... Steiner and his work comes down to us, as it were, inside the Anthroposophical Society.

The further problem is that mainstream intellectual culture (partly, but only partly, because of this institutional capture) has completely ignored Steiner. So there is no independent tradition of engagement that takes Steiner with the extreme seriousness he deserves.

And for the Anthroposophical Society; it is clear that Steiner's work is regarded as primarily a vast and (apparently) systematic collection of set of spiritual scientific facts. Thus Steiner expertise comes in the form of people with an encyclopaedic knowledge of what Steiner wrote and (mostly) said on hundreds of topics and in hundreds of thousands of words.

This is a Big Problem, because We get Steiner via his Society, and the Society regards Steiner as systematic and vast; so that in practice we are confronted with an 'all-or-nothing' demand.

If we are to take Steiner seriously, we are asked to take him whole - and this means either a lifetime's work of reading and comprehending more than a hundred dense books, or getting him secondhand and through the lens of the Anthroposophical Society - for whom Steiner's nature and oeuvre are regarded as essentially perfect and infallible.

This sounds exaggerated, and I suppose Anthroposophists would strenuously deny it!; but I believe that it is literally correct.

The situation seems to have arisen from a contradiction in Steiner's teachings, and another contradiction between what he said and what he did... but noticing and taking-seriously this kind of contradiction is exactly what the Anthroposophical Society regards as tabu. 

Indeed, it was because Steiner despaired of having his early philosophical works noticed by 'mainstream' intellectual culture, that he began to put his energies into lecturing to various niche audiences - an educational groups for socialist workers, Nietzchians, Theosophists and then forming his own Theosophical off-shoot called Anthroposophy. But in principle, Steiner might not have done this, might have remained 'independent'; and his books then would have come down to us as the work of a spiritual philosopher analogous to Coleridge, Emerson, Nietzsche, William James or Owen Barfield.

In a nutshell; the AS regards Steiner as systematic - therefore all-or-nothing; and the Society regards the person of Rudolf Steiner as wholly-well-motivated - but I do not.

Instead, I regard Steiner as a significantly-flawed individual; whose work is deeply self-contradicting, in multiple ways. And therefore to take Steiner whole is to lose his essence and to dissipate his importance.

Thus, I believe that we must be selective in reading Steiner; and this selectivity is not just in superficial details but in primary aspects of his legacy. As we read Steiner we need to recognise contradictions, and to take sides - accepting the valid, and rejecting the wrong. We also need to recognise the man's flaws, errors, and mistakes - and not to assume that he always meant well, nor that he was always truthful, nor that everything he did (or that happened to him) was For The Best.  

The difficulty is - as I said - that Steiner comes to us inside the Anthroposophical Society, and all Steiner expertise is among Anthroposophists. So someone who wants to engage with Steiner as a major Romantic Christian and as an autonomous thinker is compelled to set himself against all this! - and to contradict those who know far more than he does!

This can, however, be done coherently by regarding Steiner as primarily a metaphysical philosopher, and regarding his teaching as primarily about each individual using this metaphysical understanding to attain a different and higher state of consciousness. The millions of 'facts' (i.e. the findings of spiritual science that Steiner provides in his later work) should therefore be regarded as merely suggestions.

In a nutshell, we can choose to regard Anthroposophy as a way or path; and to reject (in part or in whole) the vast collection of facts and theories by Steiner (on subjects such as cosmology, evolutionary history, politics, agriculture, medicine, education, dancing, music, drama, bees etc. etc.)

And finally, Steiner must be regarded as a Christian, and his whole philosophy as making sense only within a Christian framework.  

For Steiner, Christianity is mandatory. Everything of primary value that Steiner said needs to be understood within a specifically-Christian frame.

And, significantly, Christianity is perhaps the only aspect of Steiner's legacy which is Not, in practice, taken seriously by the Anthroposophical Society.

Advisory note added for Romantic Christians: Do read Rudolf Steiner, anticipate learning from one of the great thinkers of all time and one of a handful of the most important thinkers for modern Westerners; but read selectively and critically - being prepared to reject the bulk of what he says. Focus on the early three philosophical books (GA 2, 3, 4) - up to 1894 - but don't restrict yourself to them. Interpret the later books in light of the early three. Understand that the whole must be interpreted in light of the foundational fact (for Steiner) that the incarnation and death of Jesus Christ is the centre and most important 'event' not just in the history of human society, but in the history of the earth - and indeed the history of all creation.