I have been exploring Rudolf Steiner over the past seven or so years - the amounts to a really large project of reading or listening-to scores of his works; tackling books and essays about his ideas; several biographies and memoirs... and reading online sources and watching videos of all kinds of people talking about Anthroposophy.
I did this initially because of Owen Barfield, who regarded Steiner as a thinker of world historical importance and who was an Anthroposophist from his middle twenties - one of the first in Britain. And then because I agreed with Barfield's estimate - but in an extremely qualified fashion.
I am gradually forming some kind of overview of the problem with Steiner; how it is that he can be so important - a major genius; and at the same time mostly, nearly always, productive of utter nonsense. How he can be so important, yet his legacy is mostly a series of essentially (i.e. in their essence) bogus initiatives in education, farming, politics, and medicine.
His writings on medicine, for example, are so terribly bad that I would not know where to begin in criticising them - they are wrong at almost every level - in their basic approach, their detail, the kind of mind set they encourage... they have nothing to do with medicine as I understand it.
But really this is nothing unusual for geniuses. When it comes to most geniuses, we are quite happy to take what we value and leave the rest behind. We value Isaac Newton for his mathematics and physics, and leave aside his theology and alchemy... and we do not find it hard to acknowledge that Newton was perhaps the greatest scientist ever and also a horrible man.
The deep problem with Steiner is that he insists over and again and with all the force he can muster - that his work is a wholly consistent and coherent whole which should be taken in toto. The Anthroposophical Society (in practice) regards Steiner in exactly this way - he is wholly well-motivated, wholly good, always right.
They really do regard Steiner as being as infallible as any human ever has been - and that is the way that his ourvre has been preserved and is presented to the world. It began during Steiner's life; and it has continued ever since. Any acknowledged faults are so minor and quibbling as merely to stress his overall and essential infallibility (rather like when job applicants admit to such 'faults' as perfectionism and working too hard).
But Steiner had flaws, including serious ones; and probably the worst was his defensive refusal ever to admit that he had changed his mind, said anything wrong or made a mistake. He was what Colin Wilson termed a Right Man - whose self-esteem depends on a brittle self-image that - ultimately, at root - he is always right, all the time, about everything.
If ever a Right Man is confronted with contradiction or incoherence - then he will explain (perhaps patiently, perhaps angrily) at endless length how this is not really contradiction or incoherence - at a deeper or higher level, everything fits together perfectly; and anyone who says otherwise is malign, foolish or incompetent.
The type is surely familiar to most people.
The problem for Steiner's self-image is that - at least at the level of obvious common sense; he changed a great deal, many times, throughout his life. And, being the massively productive genius that he was, the amount of information and assertion he generated was phenomenal - yet somehow all his life, and all his enormous body of work - had to be made into a unity, bound-together in a fully harmonious system...
This led Steiner into all kinds of tortuous assertion, selection, special pleading - and what would certainly be called dishonesty if it wasn't that he seemed to have been able to persuade himself; so I suppose it is a species of delusion.
In the last year of his life, Steiner wrote an autobiography The Story of My Life (published 1928) covering the first 2/3 of his life. It is very interesting, at times profound - I would recommend it. If you don't fancy reading; it is available free of charge and beautifully read by Dale Brunsvold in an audiobook format.
But it is a fiction of Steiner's life, not history. It isn't just that Steiner focuses (quite rightly) on spiritual aspects as contrasted with material one; it is that the picture painted is untrue: it is an old man looking back and making a unity of what was diverse, making coherent what was a sequence of U-turns and reversals. It is projecting the elderly Steiner back onto his childhood, youth and young adulthood.
The autobiography asserts that Steiner was secretly (on the inside) always exactly what he ended being - a magically insightful and charismatic figure of hypnotic presence; the dominant, confident leader of an international movement and but that this was necessarily hidden for various reasons, or people had misunderstood, or enemies had misrepresented, or whatever.
To the eye of common sense; Steiner was a very insecure young man, often
lonely, dependent on being looked-after by others (including his first
wife - that seems to have been almost the entirety of the relationship);
apparently lacking direction and being rather passively led by offers
and opportunities from others, rather than by any life strategy.
Steiner was always extremely intelligent; but his personality underwent not one but many extreme transformations. The younger Steiner showed no signs of spirituality or clairvoyance; and was variously, explicitly, obviously at different times a Roman Catholic, Kantian, atheist, political radical, materialist, nihilist, Nietzchian, anti-Christian and much more.
Somehow this is all brought into a apparent coherence by a brilliant act of synthesis that has convinced Anthroposophists ever since. But the real story is much more interesting and remarkable. It is a story of one of the most extreme personal transformations in history; such that one can hardly recognise the older and younger Steiner as being the same person.
This is important to recognise because Steiner did himself a terrible disservice by his insistence on consistency, coherence, and system; he made it almost impossible for anyone but a disciple prepared to swallow everything uncritically to take him seriously.
By insisting on taking him in an all or nothing fashion, Steiner created a small minority of cult-followers who are intellectually servile and worshipping; and a barrier against the vast majority of people who are interested and impressed only by a small proportion of his output.
The best thing that could happen to Steiner would be if he came to be treated as just an ordinary genius.