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Rudolf Steiner: An Introduction to his life and work by Gary Lachman

John Lanigan tunes into Rudolf Steiner thanks to Gary Lachman.

Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) was an educationalist whose name is increasingly familiar to parents today. The hundreds of Steiner and Waldorf schools inspired by his ideas are highly regarded for their stress on nurturing the creativity of young children through structured play. Some of the other better-known initiatives arising from Steiner’s work are bio-dynamic agriculture and the Camphill schools and villages for people with special needs. Many parents are vaguely aware that Steiner also had some idiosyncratic notions of a spiritual nature, but relatively few know or care much about them. Any who are curious could do much worse than read Gary Lachman’s excellent new biography.

Steiner was the founder of anthroposophy, which he also called ‘spiritual science’. He was born of Austrian parents of peasant stock in what is now Croatia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. He had ‘supersensible perception’ from a tender age. According to Lachman, Steiner related in a 1913 lecture his experience as a young boy of ‘meeting’ a woman who later turned out to have been a close relative and to have committed suicide not long before. The woman asked that the boy help her then, and continue to help her as he grew up. This second-sight was seemingly innate, although Steiner later regarded such phenomena as atavistic, and aimed to find a scientific method for developing and cultivating such powers within ourselves by means of conscious, deliberate thought. This task became his lifework. Steiner lays out very specific meditation exercises in order to ‘know higher worlds,’ and stresses the paramount need for humility and patience.

Steiner thinks that the spiritual world is part of nature, and similarly amenable to scientific investigation. This is an axiom of anthroposophy. Thought is one manifestation of spirit, and thinking is a spiritual activity. Steiner saw consciousness as having undergone evolutionary changes, such that the history of human consciousness is a history of the gradual loss of awareness of a spiritual world, accompanied by a slow development of what we call the ego, until we arrive at the narrowly-focused sharp ‘I-consciousness’ we have today. This loss and development were necessitated by the need for humankind to find its way to the spiritual world freely as independent beings. However, there is no guarantee of success in this quest. The danger is that humanity will fall definitively under the influence of negative powers. To be an ‘I’ carries risks, as well as advantages. To save us from this danger, ‘the Christ-Being’ was incarnated in order to thwart such powers, leaving in his teaching the possibility for us to pursue our true evolutionary path.

Anthroposophy envisages coming epochs as constituting a rapprochement between humanity and the spiritual world, but on the basis of our free choice as bearers of an I-consciousness which should undergo further evolutionary developments. This shows that Steiner’s system parallels the Christian doctrine of the Fall and redemption, but from a vast, esoteric, syncretic and cosmic perspective. Many of the concepts of anthroposophy are also shared with mainstream theosophy, while karma and reincarnation play central roles.

Steiner also developed a social philosophy, which centres on the idea of ‘three-foldness’: he says that the human soul consists of thinking, feeling, and willing, and that this is reflected in the activities of the head, the nervous-circulatory system, and the metabolic-limb system of the physical organism. Consequently only a social order which reflects this physical and spiritual three-foldness will serve humankind aright. In society, the ‘head’ is the sphere of culture and creativity, where the freedom of the individual is paramount; the circulatory system is the political sphere, where recognition of everyone’s rights is paramount; and the metabolic system is the economic sphere, where production of wealth is carried on – though for the common good, not for individual gain.

Lachman takes us through Steiner’s childhood and youth (references to “the young, dreamy boy” are perhaps a touch ‘biographese’, and there is a certain speculative tone in this section, perhaps inevitably given the lack of sources). Steiner’s education was of a scientific and technical stamp. When he was 16 the family moved near Vienna, and later Steiner participated in the city’s flourishing café society. This was the Vienna of composers Schoenberg and Webern. Steiner’s philosophy develops across periods which see him as ‘rustic scholar’; as student and editor of Goethe’s scientific works; in his discovery of himself as a born teacher and lecturer in the mainstream theosophical movement; and his break with that movement, which ushers in his full maturation as the exponent of anthroposophy and the consolidation and elaboration of the system through a vast number of public lectures delivered across Europe. On the ground, this development goes in tandem with moves from Vienna on to Weimar, Berlin and finally Switzerland.

Even for those who have some prior acquaintance with Steiner, several things we learn from Lachman may come as surprises. At variance with the impression produced by the best-known photograph (reproduced on the jacket), showing a gaunt face, sunken eyes and a piercing gaze, Steiner was a social being, and inspired love in many who knew him. He struck some though as a rather lonely and solitary figure, and he had known life in cheap furnished rooms. Steiner gave up this “miserable existence” to live with surrogate families until he was married. He eventually became a little hard-of-hearing. In many ways he was quite ordinary: like most people, Steiner had to earn a living, and he was no stranger to stultifying compromise. What may be the biggest revelation to relative outsiders is the extent of his political involvement in the affairs of the day, especially on the eve of WW1 and during its aftermath. Lachman portrays Steiner as a household-name in the German-speaking world, and internationally so in his later years. He was sought for consultation by the wife of von Moltke, commander-in-chief of German forces, before the outbreak of war. He attempted, unsuccessfully, to gain popular support for implementation of his three-fold social order in Silesia in 1921, as the region approached a referendum on whether to be part of Germany or Poland. Here, his ideas were seen by the left as potentially diverting the working classes from the core class struggle. And during the early years of the Weimar Republic, Steiner narrowly escaped assassination when a lecture he was giving was disrupted by Nazis.

Lachman’s final pages deal with the founding of the ‘Goetheanum’, an international focal point for anthroposophical activities at Dornach in Switzerland, and a drawing of conclusions on a more personal note by the biographer.

A satisfying amount of space is devoted to anthroposophy, showing us Steiner’s debt to Goethe and a certain lineage between anthroposophy and German Idealism and Romanticism. Steiner’s early rejection of a Kantian model of cognition as too limited would seem to go hand-in-hand with such an ancestry. This critique constitutes a kind of foundation for anthroposophy in conventional philosophical terms.

Lachman outlines some of anthroposophy’s main content, taking in some of the more exotic parts, such as the life between death and re-birth, ‘reading to the dead’, and the ‘occult history of the world’. In the Lemurian epoch of this history, human beings had telepathy; then there was the corruption of the ‘Atlantis’ civilisation which led to its destruction. Lachman addresses the fact that many people, having the impression that at least some of anthroposophy is the stuff of the scandal-sheet expos és of spiritualism, would not entertain it seriously for a moment. He confesses his own dubiety on these counts, but is led finally to keep the jury out on the seemingly more extravagant claims. As for Steiner himself, as he always declined to say how he knew about such things, we might most benignly conclude that he learned them from his natural gifts and from practicing his own meditation exercises.

Lachman is the author of several works on spiritual themes, and, incidentally, a former member of and song writer for 80s pop group Blondie. What then is Lachman’s considered view of Steiner? He describes himself as a sympathetic outsider, ultimately preferring the early, more orthodox epistemological works, where Steiner propounds, in Lachman’s phrase, a ‘participatory epistemology’. Here our inner world has the power to grasp its experiences in the same way that we can grasp tables and chairs. Consciousness is interactive, rather than being a passive mirror of the outside world. The biographer describes from his own personal experience how once, when looking at a rose, he had the sensation that his consciousness, no longer merely reflecting it, ‘cradled’ the rose.

This eminently fair, balanced and enlightening biography probably marks a further step in a process of increasing awareness of Steiner, brought about largely by the growth of Waldorf education. Given that much biographical writing on Steiner has been the work of anthroposophists, Lachman’s introduction probably represents a partial ‘secularisation’ of anthroposophy, in that he writes as an outsider. Colin Wilson has been described as “unable to enter into the true meaning of the work” for his sympathetic though critical writing on Steiner. It would be interesting to know how the same commentators might react to Lachman, with his cautious open-mindedness.

The signal service this biography renders is to place Steiner in a broader philosophical, historical, social and cultural context than it has until now been possible to see him in, thus satisfying a long-felt need to ground Steiner more recognisably in his times.

© John Lanigan 2008

John Lanigan is to philosophy what Jack Kerouac is to jazz. He communicated this article to our computer telepathically from Lemuria.

• Gary Lachman, Rudolf Steiner, Penguin, 2007, 278pp, $16.95 (pbk), ISBN-13: 9781585425433.

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