Rudolf Steiner: An Introduction to his life and work by Gary Lachman
john lanigan tuned in to rudolf steiner thanks to gary lachman.
Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) was an educator whose name is increasingly familiar to parents today. The hundreds of Steiner and Waldorf schools inspired by his ideas are highly regarded for their emphasis on fostering young children’s creativity through structured play. Some of the other more well-known initiatives stemming from Steiner’s work are biodynamic farming and Camphill schools and villages for people with special needs. Many parents are dimly aware that Steiner also had some idiosyncratic notions of a spiritual nature, but relatively few know or care much about them. anyone curious could do a lot worse than read the excellent new biography of gary lachman.
Steiner was the founder of anthroposophy, which he also called “spiritual science.” He was born to Austrian parents of peasant origin in what is now Croatia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. he had ‘supersensory perception’ from a tender age. According to Lachman, Steiner recounted in a 1913 lecture his experience as a boy of “meeting” a woman who later turned out to be a close relative who had committed suicide shortly before. the woman asked the boy to help her then and to continue helping her as she grew up. This second sight was apparently innate, although Steiner later regarded such phenomena as atavistic and tried to find a scientific method for developing and cultivating such powers within ourselves through conscious and deliberate thought. this task became his life’s work. Steiner establishes very specific meditation exercises to “know superior worlds” and emphasizes the primary need for humility and patience.
Steiner believes that the spiritual world is part of nature and similarly lends itself to scientific investigation. this is an axiom of anthroposophy. thought is a manifestation of the spirit, and thinking is a spiritual activity. Steiner saw that consciousness had undergone evolutionary changes, so that the history of human consciousness is a story of the gradual loss of consciousness of a spiritual world, accompanied by a slow development of what we call the ego, until we reach the narrow focus. the acute ‘self-awareness’ we have today. this loss and development were necessitated by humanity’s need to find their way into the spirit world freely as independent beings. however, there is no guarantee of success in this search. the danger is that humanity will definitely fall under the influence of negative powers. being a ‘me’ carries risks as well as benefits. To save us from this danger, ‘the Christ-being’ incarnated to frustrate such powers, leaving in his teaching the possibility that we follow our true evolutionary path.
Anthroposophy conceives the coming epochs as a rapprochement between humanity and the spiritual world, but on the basis of our free choice as bearers of a consciousness of the self that must experience greater evolutionary developments. This shows that Steiner’s system is parallel to the Christian doctrine of fall and redemption, but from a vast, esoteric, syncretic, and cosmic perspective. many of anthroposophy’s concepts are also shared with mainstream theosophy, with karma and reincarnation playing a central role.
Steiner also developed a social philosophy, which centers on the idea of ’tripleness’: 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 system -Circulatory, and metabolic systems of the extremities of the physical organism. consequently, only a social order that reflects this triple physical and spiritual aspect will serve humanity correctly. 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 the recognition of the rights of all prevails; and the metabolic system is the economic sphere, where the production of wealth takes place, although for the common good, not for individual benefit.
lachman takes us through steiner’s childhood and youth (the references to “the dreaming boy” are perhaps a bit “biographical”, and there is a certain speculative tone to this section, perhaps inevitably given the lack of sources ). Steiner’s education was scientific and technical. When he was 16, the family moved near Vienna, and Steiner later participated in the city’s thriving café society. this was the vienna of the composers schoenberg and webern. Steiner’s philosophy develops over periods that see him as a “rustic scholar”; as a 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 marks the beginning of his full maturation as an exponent of anthroposophy and the consolidation and elaboration of the system through a large number of public lectures delivered throughout Europe. on the ground, this development goes hand in hand with moves from vienna to weimar, berlin and finally to switzerland.
even for those who already know steiner, several things we learn from lachman may be surprising. Unlike the impression made by the best-known photograph (reproduced on the dust jacket), which shows an emaciated face, sunken eyes, and a penetrating gaze, Steiner was a social being and was loved by many who knew him. to some he seemed a rather reclusive and reclusive figure, and he had known life in cheaply furnished rooms. Steiner gave up this “miserable existence” to live with foster families until he married. he eventually became a bit hard of hearing. In many ways, he was pretty normal: Like most people, Steiner had to earn a living and was no stranger to stultifying commitments. What may be the biggest eye opener 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 in his later years. he was sought out for consultation by the wife of von moltke, commander-in-chief of the german forces, before the outbreak of the war. He tried unsuccessfully to garner popular support for the implementation of his triple social order in Silesia in 1921, as the region neared a referendum on whether to become part of Germany or Poland. here, his ideas were seen by the left as potentially diverting the working classes from the central class struggle. And during the early years of the Weimar Republic, Steiner narrowly escaped assassination when the Nazis disrupted a lecture he was giving.
Lachman’s final pages deal with the founding of the ‘Goetheanum’, an international focal point for anthroposophical activities in Dornach in Switzerland, and a drawing of conclusions on a more personal note from 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 ancestry. this critique constitutes a kind of foundation for anthroposophy in conventional philosophical terms.
lachman describes some of the main content of anthroposophy, covering some of the more exotic parts, such as life between death and rebirth, “reading the dead”, and the “hidden history of the world”. in the Lemurian time of this story, human beings had telepathy; then there was the corruption of the ‘Atlantean’ civilization that led to its destruction. Lachman addresses the fact that many people, being under the impression that at least part of anthroposophy is the subject of the scandalous revelations of spiritualism, would not take it seriously for a moment. he confesses his own doubt on these aspects, but is ultimately forced to keep the jury out of the seemingly more outlandish claims. As for Steiner himself, since he always refused to say how he knew about such things, we can benevolently conclude that he learned them from his natural gifts and from practicing his own meditative exercises.
lachman is the author of several works on spiritual themes and, incidentally, a former member and songwriter of the 1980s pop group blondie. what then is lachman’s considered view of steiner? He describes himself as a sympathetic outsider, ultimately preferring the more orthodox early epistemological work, where Steiner proposes, in Lachman’s words, a “participatory epistemology.” here our inner world has the power to capture your experiences in the same way that we can grasp tables and chairs. consciousness is interactive, rather than 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, which was no longer limited to reflecting it, “cradled” the rose.
This eminently fair, balanced, and illuminating biography probably marks another step in a process of increasing awareness of Steiner, brought about in large part by the growth of Waldorf education. Given that much of the biographical writing on Steiner has been the work of anthroposophists, Lachman’s introduction probably represents a partial “secularization” of anthroposophy, in the sense that she writes as an outsider. Colin Wilson has been described as “unable to fathom the true meaning of the work” for his sympathetic if critical writings on Steiner. It would be interesting to know how the commentators themselves might react to Lachman, with his wary open-mindedness.
the signal service this biography provides is to place steiner in a broader philosophical, historical, social and cultural context than has hitherto been possible to see, thus fulfilling a long-felt need to ground steiner in a more recognizable way in its 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, 278 pages, $16.95 (pbk), isbn-13: 9781585425433.