Tag Archives: Anthroposophy

Rudolf Steiner’s last illness and last verse

As far as I’m aware, the exact nature of Rudolf Steiner’s last illness has never been established. He took to his sick bed on September 28th 1924, straight after having had to cut short a lecture in Dornach because of exhaustion and physical weakness. Rather than go to his apartment in Haus Hansi, Steiner opted to be cared for in the primitively equipped studio – not much more than a wooden barracks – where he had worked with Edith Maryon on carving the statue of the Representative of Man. It was here that he had all his working papers, and his library was close at hand; but there was not much else to recommend it as a sick room. The studio had no windows, only a skylight; there was no kitchen and the boards of the wooden walls were thin and the cold of winter came through them – and he was often disturbed by the construction noise from the work on the second Goetheanum nearby. Here he was attended, mainly by Dr. Ita Wegman who stayed in a small side-room off the studio, and on occasions by Dr Ludwig Noll and others.

Steiner 1924

Dr Rudolf Steiner in 1920.

We know that his digestion was extremely delicate and had been so for some years before this. In the last months of his life, he seems to have been unable to take in anything except the smallest quantities of food. I think we can safely discount the rumour that he had been poisoned at a tea party on January 1st 1924, not least because Steiner himself tried to quash this on three occasions and the physicians attending him all said that this was not the case. I’m also inclined to discount the idea, which Marie Steiner put forward and Sergei Prokofieff subsequently developed, that Steiner had taken on the karma of the members of the Anthroposophical Society but that they had failed to respond to the opportunity given them at the Christmas Foundation Conference and had therefore somehow through the operation of an occult law brought Steiner to a premature end.

Edith Maryon, who had stood with Steiner and watched the burning of the first Goetheanum on New Year’s Eve 1922, died in 1924 after a long and painful illness. Speaking in May 1924 after her death, Steiner said this:

The seed of Miss Maryon’s illness was planted in her during the night in which the Goetheanum burned down. And from what was started with that seed during the night when the Goetheanum burned she could not be healed, not even with the most attentive and skilled care.

220px-Edith_Maryon

Edith Maryon, the English sculptor and close colleague of Rudolf Steiner

Did this also apply to Steiner himself? It seems likely. The signs of his illness had appeared some years previously and were seen by those who worked closely with him but weren’t noticed by more casual observers until the beginning of 1924, that annus mirabilis in which he achieved superhuman feats of work, despite being so ill. Many eye-witnesses attested to the phenomenon of Steiner, who looked ill and exhausted before a lecture, gaining strength and vitality as soon as he began to speak, so much so that people thought he had recovered from whatever was ailing him. Actors who have been ill before a performance often experience this phenomenon of suddenly gaining new life and energy when they go on stage – they call it “Dr Theatre”.

burning goetheanum

The smoking ruins of the first Goetheanum, thought to have been destroyed by an arsonist.

What we do know is that by the last six months of his life, Steiner had lost a lot of weight, did not have the least appetite, his physical strength was so reduced that he had to be supported when he stood up and he suffered from very painful haemorrhoids. An enlarged prostate had caused a urinary tract blockage, which must also have been very painful – particularly as I suspect he did not allow Dr Wegman to catheterise him, and so this had to wait until Dr Noll was able to visit.

But even after he had taken to his sickbed, Steiner worked incessantly. He was writing his biography, The Course of My Life, writing the Letters to Members and the Leading Thoughts, reading the daily newspapers, studying the latest scientific and literary articles, and speed-reading piles of books which his secretary, Guenther Wachsmuth, brought in for him every day. He also dealt with masses of correspondence and all the details of the construction of the second Goetheanum, as well as holding regular conferences with Albert Steffen about editorial matters for two weekly periodicals.

In the draft she prepared for a lecture about Steiner in 1931, Dr Ita Wegman, Steiner’s main physician, said the following:

Through the burning of the Goetheanum, which shattered his physical body – there was a powerful loosening of the etheric body, even a separation of the etheric from the physical – his health became ever more delicate. “In comparison to other people, I have really already died on earth,” was something he often said. “My ego and astral body direct the physical body and supplement the etheric.…”

The question that arises again and again: what are we to understand by illness of an initiate, why speak of an illness in the case of Rudolf Steiner? That is what I want to try to answer here.

Well, why did he get sick? The delicate physical body was left behind too much and for too long by the soul-spiritual which was working in its very own homeland. The physical body was left to its own weight and physical laws, so that it became weaker and the digestion failed.

wegman

Dr Ita Wegman, Steiner’s close colleague and main physician during his last illness.

Steiner seems to have believed (or at least told others) up until very close to the end, that he would prevail over the illness. He died on the morning of March 30th 1925 without having been able to resume any of the lectures or overseas visits he had planned. Two weeks or so before his death, he wrote the following verse:

 I want with cosmic spirit

To enthuse each human being

That a flame they may become

And fiery will unfold

The essence of their being.

 

The other ones, they strive

To take from cosmic waters

What will extinguish flames

And pour paralysis

Into all inner being.

 

O joy, when human being’s flame

Is blazing, even when at rest.

O bitter pain, when the human thing

Is put in bonds, when it wants to stir.

 

(Ich möchte jeden Menschen

Aus des Kosmos Geist entzünden

Daß er Flamme werde

Und feurig seines Wesens Wesen

Entfalte.

 

Die Anderen, sie möchten

Aus des Kosmos Wasser nehmen

Was die Flammen verlöscht,

Und wässrig alles Wesen

Im Innern lähmt.

 

O Freude, wenn die Menschenflamme

Lodert, auch da wo sie ruht.

O Bitternis, wenn das Menschending

Gebunden wird, da wo es regsam sein möchte.)

 

I find it intensely moving that Steiner’s last year of life was spent in working harder and harder, despite all his physical ailments, to get across to people the magnificence of what it is to be a human being and to help each person to find that spiritual flame of the true self. For those of us who love Steiner, one way we can express that is to try to help others to see the choice they have between unfolding the essence of their true being or becoming the “human thing” chained down by materialistic illusions.

Christian Morgenstern expressed it beautifully:

I have seen THE HUMAN BEING in his deepest aspect,

I know the world, down to its foundation stones.

 

Its meaning, I have learned is love alone,

And I am here to love, and ever love again.

 

I spread out my arms, as HE spread HIS,

To embrace the whole wide world as HE has done.

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Filed under Anthroposophy, Rudolf Steiner, Rudolf Steiner poisoning

No, Mr Dugan, Steiner Waldorf schools are not cult schools.

Following the anthropopper’s last post, my attention was drawn to comments on the Waldorf Critics’ forum alleging cult-like behaviour in Steiner Waldorf schools. Such criticisms have been around for some time, of course. Several long-standing allegations of cult-like behaviour have come from Dan Dugan of the organisation PLANS (People for Legal and Non-Sectarian Schools) in the USA. Dan listed nine “cult-like characteristics of anthroposophy” on the Waldorf Critics’ website on February 9th 1999.

Just a year or so before that, my wife and I decided that we wanted to send our daughter to a Steiner Waldorf school. Our daughter had had a happy first year of school in the Reception class of our local state primary school. I remember her skipping down the road on her journey to school, eager to get there to meet her friends and enjoy the day. This changed, unfortunately, when she moved into Year 1 and the National Curriculum kicked in. We began to notice some distinct and disturbing changes in our daughter. She started to become clumsy and was often falling and bruising herself. This happy, outgoing child started to become pale and withdrawn. Most alarming of all, the spontaneous dancing and painting and drawing she had previously done just stopped.

At this point we decided we had to act. We went to visit various Steiner schools with our daughter where she met the teachers and the pupils in her age group and took part in sample lessons. Eventually she decided that she wanted to go to the Kings Langley school. Things moved fast from that point; our house went on the market in July and sold within one week for our asking price; we went on a frantic house search process and eventually found a house we liked and could just about afford. We moved in at the beginning of September 1998 and our daughter started at the Kings Langley school three days later.

Why did we want to send our daughter to a Steiner school, even though any rational assessment would show that we couldn’t afford the fees and that we faced the prospect of years of scrimping and saving and few, if any, holidays? There are so many reasons but here are just a few:

  • A truly child-centred curriculum that allows children to develop at their own pace and to have a proper childhood
  • A method that uses art and creativity to teach every subject
  • The main lesson system which allows subjects to be studied with both depth and breadth
  • A noticeable quality of warmth in the schools and friendly relations between staff and pupils but also mutual respect

I would like a school with such qualities to be available for every child who might benefit from it, especially for those whose parents can’t afford the fees of the independent schools. That is why I am so pleased for those parents who live within the catchment areas of the new publicly-funded Bristol, Exeter, Frome and Hereford Steiner Academy schools. I wish there were many more, throughout the country, to supplement the good work of the independent schools.

Dan Dugan’s own history with Waldorf schools is interesting and has been set out in some detail here. Dan describes himself as a “secular humanist” but his humanist values do not seem to prevent him from engaging in campaigns of misinformation, defamation and myth-making. In the USA, of course, with the separation of church and state, schools have a delicate balancing act to perform, which PLANS has sought to exploit by bringing legal cases against Waldorf schools – which PLANS have subsequently lost. In seeking to make his case that Steiner Waldorf schools are religious schools, Dan has listed what he calls their cult-like characteristics.

These alleged cult-like characteristics, as identified by Dan, are shown below in bold while my comments on these are shown in italics.

Cult-like characteristics of Anthroposophy include:

1. It clings to rejected knowledge. 
(The heart is not a pump, etc.)

Here’s an extract from an article on the AnthroMed Library website which deals with this question:

 “To any doctor trained in today’s medical schools, the idea that the heart may not be a pump would, at first sight, appear to be about as logical as suggesting that the sun rises in the West or that water flows uphill. So strongly is the pump concept ingrained in the collective psyche that even trying to think otherwise is more than most people can manage. Yet Rudolf Steiner, a man not given to unscientific or slipshod thinking, was quite clear on the matter and reiterated time and again that the heart is not a pump. “The blood drives the heart, not the heart the blood.”

This topic requires more space than is available here, but anyone wishing to find out more might wish to start with this article from the Journal of Anthroposophical Medicine. There is also a useful description of what is taught about the heart in Steiner Waldorf schools here.

A further interesting fact, which medical science is unable to explain, is that in embryological development, the blood starts circulating in the embryo before the heart organ has been created. In other words, blood circulation in the embryo pre-dates the heart.

2. It requires teachers to commit to the world-view for advancement in status. 
(college of teachers).

Many Steiner Waldorf schools do not have a head teacher or principal but are instead organised by a body of staff (mainly teachers but often including administrators) called the College of Teachers. The criteria for becoming a College member usually include a commitment to working meditatively on oneself, thus seeking an active connection between oneself and the spiritual worlds; on being on a continuous path of personal and professional development; and on taking an active part in the running of the school beyond one’s normal teaching or administrative duties. Becoming a member of College does not lead to any increase in status, nor to any increase in pay. What it does lead to is a deeper commitment to the work of the school and a fuller realisation of the seriousness and responsibility of the task of the educator.

3. Its core doctrines are not published. 
(First Class).

It is true that what are called the class lessons of the First Class of the School of Spiritual Science have not been published – although these can now be found online, published without support from the society. During the refounding of the Anthroposophical Society at Christmas 1923/24 as the General Anthroposophical Society, Rudolf Steiner also introduced the School of Spiritual Science, which was intended to have three classes, leading from one to the next. Owing to Steiner’s death in 1925, he was only able to provide lessons for the First Class. His intention was that there should not be any published texts of these lessons released for personal reading but that the content of the lessons should be passed on by word of mouth. It was also his intention that anyone who wished to belong to the school should be “a worthy representative of anthroposophy before the world.” The reason for this is that the lessons are steeped in esoteric knowledge and require much background preparation from the student. They are not to be read or talked about like stories from a newspaper, or thought about with our everyday kind of thinking. “One can accomplish nothing whatever in esoteric life if one does not know that in esoteric life truth – absolute truth – must prevail, and that we cannot merely speak of truth and still persist in taking these things in the way one would in the profane, external life.” So these texts are not for intellectual or casual reading, but require a certain cast of mind, as well as preparation and commitment, before engaging with them.

4. It is exclusive. 
(Only Anthroposophical knowledge of man leads to right education.)

It’s not obvious what Dan has in mind here – Steiner Waldorf schools of course teach all kinds of knowledge from many different sources, as does any school. Anthroposophy, on the other hand, is not taught to the children, nor is it necessary to be an anthroposophist before teaching in a Steiner Waldorf school. Clearly, the schools hope that anyone who comes to teach in a Waldorf setting will have an interest in anthroposophy and will want to find out more; but it is not a requirement and teachers do not have to sign up to any particular set of beliefs.

5. It guards revelation of “difficult” knowledge. 
(Prospective parents won’t be told about the role of Lucifer.)

When Dan Dugan wrote this list of cult-like characteristics in the late 1990s, it was probably a fair criticism to say that prospective parents were not told much about anthroposophy in many school prospectuses. I don’t believe this was for any sinister reason, but simply because it would be difficult to know where to begin with such a complex and extensive body of knowledge. However, in the light of criticisms from organisations like PLANS, school websites and prospectuses are nowadays much more likely to be more forthcoming about anthroposophy, and this is very much to be welcomed. Parents should of course do their own online research and reading about educational systems, as well as pay visits to the school and talk to other parents before committing their child to any particular school.

6. It is a closed system. 
(Almost all publications referenced are from Anthroposophical presses and periodicals, all writers refer to Steiner.)

Inasmuch as it applies to anthroposophy, this is probably a fair criticism. I think such a criticism might also apply to other specialist areas originated by a towering figure, eg Jungian psychology, in which new territory was being opened up by the founder. The passage of time will change this, as is already being seen within anthroposophy, where the contributions of people such Bernard Lievegoed, Otto Scharmer, Arthur Zajonc and other highly respected thinkers are building on Steiner’s foundations.

Inasmuch as it applies to Steiner Waldorf schools, the same situation applies, with Steiner’s educational ideas gradually being added to by other experienced educationalists. Steiner Waldorf schools have been to a certain extent insular in their relations with the wider educational world. There are reasons for this, of course, in that the Waldorf system deplores much of what it regards as the excessive pressures and unreasonable demands put upon children and schools by modern politicians; and does not see many of its own ideas understood or referred to in mainstream educational publications. Clearly, however, it is not ideal for the schools to be isolated from the educational culture of their countries and Steiner would undoubtedly have wished there to have been much more interaction between Waldorf and other school systems. I have written more about this here. In those countries (now including England) where Steiner Waldorf schools are able to receive public funding, there is much more of a sense that the schools are part of a pluralistic educational culture.

7. It uses Jargon that redefines common terms. 
(Child development)

When Steiner Waldorf schools talk about child development and age-appropriate education, they have in mind the importance of not bringing any form of knowledge to a child before he or she is developmentally ready to receive and benefit from it. Rudolf Steiner has given the schools a model of child development which has been tried and tested now for over 90 years, and on the whole it works very well, because it accords completely with the actual nature of most children.

8. It maintains separation from the world by generating fear and loathing. 
(Denigrating public schools, “us vs them” attitude, paranoia)

I’ve not heard any reports of this from schools in the UK but there are certainly allegations of this nature made in the USA. If this has ever happened in any Steiner Waldorf school, it would certainly be deplorable and would be completely contrary to the intentions of Rudolf Steiner.

9. It suppresses critical dialogue, resulting in elaboration but no development of theory. 
(Consensus government, “like it or leave,” Shunning)

It is, of course, very difficult in any school if a parent or group of parents starts to create serious unrest in the parent body with vociferous complaints. In such cases, if the parents do not respond to offers of dialogue and discussion but continue to spread disharmony, then they may be asked to leave. The challenge for schools is to be as open as possible about anthroposophy before parents enrol their children; and then to provide plenty of opportunities through parents’ evenings, study groups and orientation days for any issues to be discussed before they become contentious and divisive. If the school attended by Dan’s son had been more open all those years ago, perhaps Dan would have realised in advance that it was not somewhere he would choose for his son’s education.

Conclusion

I am not an uncritical defender of Steiner Waldorf schools and I do recognise that on occasion, things can go wrong. Some schools seem to have an unfortunate knack for upsetting parents and then failing to deal properly with the consequences. The reasons for this can be many and complex and in my post on leadership & management issues in Steiner Waldorf schools, I’ve listed some of these. Improved teacher training, school management and customer care are required before these problems will start to disappear. But I also think that when Steiner Waldorf education works well, as it does for many thousands of children (including my own daughter), it’s one of the best, and most human, systems of education you can find.

I hope it is clear from what has been written above, and in my previous post on anthroposophy, that Steiner Waldorf schools cannot legitimately be described as being part of a cult, or cult-like. But it is also clear that Steiner Waldorf schools need to be as open and transparent as possible with parents about anthroposophy and the part it plays in the approach that teachers take to their teaching. I believe that most Steiner Waldorf schools today are more aware of these issues and that school brochures and websites are far less reticent about anthroposophy than used to be the case. It is not in the best interests of any school to have parents who do not support the Waldorf system or who feel that somehow the school has been less than straightforward with them about what lies behind the education. Well-informed and supportive parents, who understand what the teachers are trying to achieve and who are prepared to work with the school for the best outcomes for their children, are the bedrock of any school system, Steiner Waldorf or mainstream.

Further reading

There are several posts on this blog about Steiner Waldorf education, or which touch on aspects of it. For ease of reference, here are the links:

September 4th 2014 – Rudolf Steiner visits Margaret McMillan

September 11th 2014 – The internet, the critics and Steiner Waldorf schools

September 16th 2014 – Karma and the Steiner Waldorf teacher

September 27th 2014 – Why some atheists like anthroposophy

October 2nd 2014 – The issue that isn’t going away – leadership and management in Steiner Waldorf schools

October 4th 2014 – Different strokes for different folks

October 9th 2014 – A few thoughts on leadership and management issues in Steiner Waldorf schools

February 15th 2015 – “Every school could use these methods…”

December 1st 2015 – “A right good evening, the best of cheer…”

December 13th 2015 – Guest Post: Leadership & Organisational Structure in Steiner Waldorf schools

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Filed under Anthroposophy, Dan Dugan/PLANS, Leadership in Steiner Waldorf Schools, Rudolf Steiner, Steiner Waldorf schools, Waldorf critics

No, anthroposophy is not a cult – and here’s why.

People who are critical of anthroposophy sometimes accuse it of being a cult, or a cult-like religious sect. To determine whether there is any validity in this accusation, we need first of all to understand what these critics are likely to mean by the word “cult.”

According to Wikipedia, the word “cult” was originally used, not to describe a group of religionists, but the act of worship or religious ceremony. It was first used in the early 17th century, borrowed via the French culte, from Latin cultus (worship).

Today, however – at least in English – the word “cult” is understood as a derogatory term. Wikipedia goes on to say that: “In the mass media, and among average citizens, “cult” gained an increasingly negative connotation, becoming associated with things like kidnapping, brainwashing, psychological abuse, sexual abuse and other criminal activity, and mass suicide. While most of these negative qualities usually have real documented precedents in the activities of a very small minority of new religious groups, mass culture often extends them to any religious group viewed as culturally deviant, however peaceful or law abiding it may be.”

In such a context, to accuse anthroposophy of being a cult is to make a serious and potentially damaging allegation. So what is the reality – is anthroposophy “a cult-like religious sect following the teachings of Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925)”, as alleged by Dan Dugan (founder of PLANS and the Waldorf Critics’ website)? Or is it neither a cult nor a religion but a path of knowledge to guide the spiritual in the human being to the spiritual in the universe, as described by its founder, Rudolf Steiner?

Let us see if we can find a further definition of what constitutes a cult. There is a very useful organisation called the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA), which provides information on cults, cultic groups, psychological manipulation, etc, and practical suggestions for those affected by or interested in these subjects. I presume that Dan Dugan approves of the work of ICSA, because he has published an article about anthroposophy on its website.

The ICSA says that cults usually display some or all of fifteen typical characteristics. These fifteen characteristics identified by the ICSA are shown below in bold while my comments on how anthroposophy compares with these are in italics.

 1. “The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and (whether he is alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, as law. “

 Rudolf Steiner, the founder of anthroposophy, was undoubtedly a charismatic leader and his teachings, as set out in his lectures and books, are usually taken with great seriousness and respect by anthroposophists; but Steiner himself always insisted that no-one should take his statements as true unless they had first checked within themselves as to how they feel about such statements, eg our innate and “infallible feeling for truth must be the active principle in the verification of knowledge.” Anthroposophists who are given to quoting Steiner on all subjects rather than speaking from their own experience and knowledge are not doing what Steiner asked of them – and such behaviour does not make anthroposophy a cult, even if a few anthroposophists sometimes can give that impression.

There is an additional difficulty for anthroposophy, however, and this has been well described by Ha Vinh Tho: “On one hand everybody emphasises that it is NOT a religion but a spiritual science, but on the other hand most of the contents of anthroposophy are completely beyond any ones cognitive grasp and have to be accepted in good faith. The method presented by Steiner is indeed accessible to all, but the contents he researched are mostly far beyond anyone’s grasp who is not an initiate or a fully realised being. And there seems to be a confusion between advocating a scientific methodology of contemplative research and inquiry that includes the spiritual dimension of the human being and of the world; and upholding contents that can only be perceived by non-anthroposophists as a revelation given by an enlightened master. I have no problem with the latter, but there is no way one can present these revelations as scientific results that everyone can acknowledge.”

This is surely true. Anthroposophists (like me, for example), regard Steiner as an initiate who was able to access knowledge not available to most of us. We are willing to live with some very advanced concepts that we can’t prove, because of our sense of Steiner’s total integrity and extraordinary insight. Nevertheless, by their fruits shall ye know them; and the results of what I call “applied anthroposophy” continue to demonstrate the potential for practical solutions to current world problems that arise from the work of Steiner and many other anthroposophists in the fields of agriculture, banking, health, education and in many other areas.

2. “Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.”

Question, doubt and dissent have always been part of anthroposophy since its foundation. But since there is no set of beliefs or doctrines that members are required to adhere to, there is no possibility for any member to transgress. There are of course areas of controversy and disagreement but people are in no way prevented or discouraged from discussing their views or adopting particular positions. The word “must” does not exist in the anthroposophical vocabulary, since freedom is at the core of anthroposophy.

3. “Mind-altering practices (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, and debilitating work routines) are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).”

Meditation and the meditative path are certainly encouraged in anthroposophy, but are seen as private, individual initiatives and have nothing to do with the society. None of the other practices listed has ever had any place in anthroposophy.

4. “The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel (for example, members must get permission to date, change jobs, marry—or leaders prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, whether or not to have children, how to discipline children, and so forth.“

There is absolutely no dictation to members on what to wear, how to think, feel or act, who to marry etc. The concept of freedom is central to anthroposophy.

5. “The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s) and members (for example, the leader is considered the Messiah, a special being, an avatar—or the group and/or the leader is on a special mission to save humanity.”

As mentioned under (1) above, anthroposophists often regard Steiner as an initiate and anthroposophy certainly sees itself as having much to contribute towards current world problems – but there is no sense in which anthroposophists regard themselves as an elite separate from the rest of society. On the contrary, Steiner frequently made it clear how important it is for anthroposophists to be involved in the wider world, eg “Our anthroposophical movement should not be a vaguely mystical, nebulous theory-movement sought by people wishing to withdraw from life, but must be a movement by which a man {sic} introduces the spiritual with practical effect into life’s every sphere.”

6. “The group has a polarised us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society.”

Anthroposophists are encouraged to ‘do’ anthroposophy, ie to be engaged and active within the world – there is no sense of us versus them.

7. “The leader is not accountable to any authorities (unlike, for example, teachers, military commanders or ministers, priests, monks, and rabbis of mainstream religious denominations).”

Since Steiner’s death in 1925, there has been no ‘leader’ of anthroposophy. Each national society has a general secretary and Council who are accountable to their members and chosen by election.

8. “The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members participating in behaviours or activities they would have considered reprehensible or unethical before joining the group (for example, lying to family or friends, or collecting money for bogus charities).”

Steiner was known as a man of unimpeachable moral integrity – not even his most vehement critics have ever accused him of any dishonourable behaviour. Steiner himself said that to take one step in spiritual development required three steps in moral development. To call oneself an anthroposophist while engaging in reprehensible or unethical behaviour would be simply to fail to understand anthroposophy, let alone live it. That is not to deny that some anthroposophists have failed to understand it and have fallen grievously short of what one would expect from them – one thinks for example of some individuals who were close to the Nazis in Germany or the fascists in Italy in the 1930s and 40s – but these people were notable exceptions.

 9. “The leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guilt in order to influence and/or control members. Often, this is done through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion.”

This does not happen in anthroposophy – there is no peer pressure to conform and no forms of persuasion, subtle or otherwise.

 10. “Subservience to the leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before joining the group.”

None of these things is required or expected of anthroposophists, nor is there any kind of leader to whom one could be subservient.

11. “The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.”

 This is certainly not the case with anthroposophy.

12. “The group is preoccupied with making money. “

This is even less the case with anthroposophy, as the difficult financial state of many anthroposophical organisations can bear witness.

13. “Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.”

There are absolutely no requirements or expectations of this kind for anthroposophists.

14. “Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialise only with other group members.”

This is absolutely not the case in anthroposophy.

15. “The most loyal members (the “true believers”) feel there can be no life outside the context of the group. They believe there is no other way to be, and often fear reprisals to themselves or others if they leave (or even consider leaving) the group.”

People who are devoted anthroposophists naturally value their membership of the society and are loyal to it – but no anthroposophist has ever feared reprisals from other members and people are entirely free to leave membership, without any fear of reprisals, whenever they wish.

I think it is clear from the ICSA list above that anthroposophy displays none of the characteristics of a typical cult. To be fair to Dan Dugan, he has himself admitted, in an exchange with Tarjei Straume, that “I agree that as cults go, Anthroposphy is a sissy; in almost all aspects not dangerous, just a huge waste of time.” That’s about as good as we’re going to get from a Waldorf critic – and if Dan Dugan goes on record to say that anthroposophy is not much of a cult, then I think the rest of us can probably agree that it is not a cult at all.

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Filed under Anthroposophy, Cult, Rudolf Steiner, Waldorf critics

A Happy Number-Crunching New Year!

WordPress, the company which hosts this blog as well as many thousands of others, has recently sent out data about activity on anthropopper during 2015.It began like this:

“The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 20,000 times in 2015. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 7 sold-out performances for that many people to see it….The busiest day of the year was August 8th, with 1,541 views. The most popular post that day was Marilyn Monroe and Rudolf Steiner.”

Ah yes, Marilyn and Rudi. That has certainly been the most popular post, not only in 2015 but in 2014 as well. Checking the stats for that post, on one day in September 2014 it received 2,001 views. I reckon that since it was first put up in September 15th 2014, it has received more than 16,000 views from around the world.

Clearly the key to blogging success for those of us with recherché subject matter is to find a way to link our topic with another one of much vaster public interest. (Now, how can I follow on from Marilyn and Rudi? Rudi and Princess Di? Rudi and Elvis? There must be some sort of link I can find!  Rudolf Steiner and cats doing funny things, perhaps?)

What was truly astonishing, though, was the information about where these visitors came from. They came from 109 countries in all! And there are only around 190 countries in the whole world. Most visitors of course came from the USA, UK and Australia, but there were also surprisingly sizeable visitor numbers from Scandinavia, Europe, the Indian sub-continent, China, Russia, South America, and South Africa.

Now for many bloggers I’ve no doubt that these numbers will seem miniscule by comparison with their own sites; but nevertheless I thought all of this was quite impressive and encouraging for a blog which is dealing with subjects that are decidedly of esoteric rather than mainstream interest. If I had set out to write a book on anthroposophy, I doubt if 1,000 people would have seen it. But in this age of the internet, a blog about aspects of anthroposophy has received over 33,000 views from 20,000 visitors in just eighteen months. Many thanks, dear readers and followers, for your interest so far and very best wishes for 2016!

By the way, here is a link to a blog post by Ha Vinh Tho, who summarises neatly some of the dilemmas facing anthroposophy at the present time. I’m sure that these themes will be featuring on the anthropopper blog as well during 2016.

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Filed under Anthroposophy, Rudolf Steiner

Staudi: or The Curate’s Egg

The anthropopper notes with interest that in his recent posts on this blog, he seems to have inadvertently adopted a Threefold Posting Order. The first three posts were on the topic of Angels and then the next two were about Demons. Well, here is one last post about Peter Staudenmaier to complete the threefolding aspect; after which I hope to be able to concentrate on more wholesome topics.

Bishop:

Bishop: “I’m afraid you’ve got a bad egg, Mr Jones”; The curate replies, desperate not to offend his eminent host and ultimate employer: “Oh no, my Lord, I assure you! Parts of it are excellent!”

Gerald du Maurier’s celebrated cartoon, which appeared in Punch in November 1895, gave rise to the phrase ‘a curate’s egg’, meaning something that is mostly or partly bad, but partly good. A modern-day version of this cartoon might have the caption:

Staudenmaier: “I’m afraid I’m a bad egg, Mr Mellett.” Mellett wipes a brown substance off his nose and replies, desperate not to offend his lord and master: “Oh no, my Lord, I assure you! Parts of you are excellent!”

According to Wikipedia, “in its original context, the term ‘a curate’s egg’refers to something that is obviously and essentially bad, but is euphemistically described as nonetheless having good features credited with undue redeeming power. Its modern usage varies. Some authorities define it as something that is an indeterminate mix of good and bad and others say it implies a preponderance of bad qualities.”

Isn’t that last sentence a perfect description of Peter Staudenmaier, self-appointed scourge of Steiner and anthroposophy and intellectual guru to the Waldorf Critics’ Yahoo group?

Staudenmaier, for those who have not yet made his online acquaintance, is the professor of modern German history at Marquette University in Milwaukee. His research explores the work of Rudolf Steiner; his dissertation was “Between Occultism and Fascism: Anthroposophy and the Politics of Race and Nation in Germany and Italy, 1900-1945.”

Like a polecat, which despite its stink and habit of biting all and sundry indiscriminately, can nevertheless occasionally be useful for chasing rabbits out of their burrows, the egregious Staudi sometimes has a use; and even the anthropopper has expressed gratitude to him for revealing a slice of history about which the Society has, rather disgracefully in my view, kept quiet. Here, for example, is a link to a review by Staudi of a book by Ansgar Martins. This shadow side of anthroposophy really should be known by all anthroposophists. As “Wooffles” commented on my last but one post, “In the last decade or so, anthroposophists, or at least some anthroposophists, have gotten much better at engaging with historical context, and it is doubtful that this would have taken place without the persistence of not-particularly-sympathetic scholars like Staudenmaier and Zander.”  That’s quite a fair point, although the phrase “not particularly sympathetic scholar” when applied to Staudi’s attitude to Steiner must qualify as understatement of the year.

But, to return to my original metaphor, a bad egg is hard to like and Staudi’s overweening arrogance and contempt for others does nothing to endear him to any readers other than the fawning sycophants and melletts on the WC Yahoo list. It’s an interesting question why, unlike say with Martins or Zander, Staudi arouses such animosity in so many people. Is it for the reason Staudi himself gives?

“Any outside scholar who studies anthroposophy encounters strong opposition from parts of the anthroposophist movement. A large part of the reason why I continued researching anthroposophy’s history had to do with this sort of opposition; I initially thought the article I was asked to write back in 1999 would be a one-time piece, and then I’d return to other topics. But the article provoked such an indignant response among anthroposophists that I went back to the sources to see if I had missed something, and the further I dug into this history the more I found. Anthroposophists routinely claim that scholars who examine their movement have distorted Steiner’s ideas and misrepresented his teachings and falsified his true message and so forth; this is a common reaction among esoteric groups, who often believe they have special access to higher forms of knowledge and react strongly against scholarly standards of critical inquiry. The same sort of opposition I face is even more intense in the case of my German colleague Helmut Zander, the foremost historian of anthroposophy. Many of Steiner’s followers simply don’t like seeing their movement and worldview subjected to external scrutiny.”

Well, that sounds reasonable enough, doesn’t it? The picture he conjures up is not implausible: anthroposophists, who may be well-meaning but unaware of some significant episodes in the history of their movement,  react angrily to information which doesn’t correspond to how they feel about anthroposophy.

But unfortunately for the good professor’s chances of constructive dialogue with such anthroposophists, he doesn’t leave matters there and cannot resist being condescending, dismissive and supercilious with anyone who questions him.

Staudi was brought irresistibly to mind when I read the following passage in John Stewart Collis’ wonderful account of farming life during the 1940s, The Worm Forgives the Plough:

“There is an interesting remark which I have often heard here and elsewhere, not uncommon anywhere when some boss or foreman is mentioned. ‘The trouble is,’ they say, ‘ ‘e’s so ignorant.’ By this they do not mean that he lacks knowledge. They mean that he lacks manners. It is a significant remark. For what is manners? Manners is psychology. It is the understanding of the simple psychological needs of other people. It is homage to the strikingly simple fact that people like you to address them amiably; to show appreciation, and to say thank you at intervals. If a man does not know this and act upon it he is called ignorant by labourers under him. That is their philosophy of education.”

By this definition, Staudi is remarkably ignorant. One wouldn’t really have expected this in someone who has been an active participant in the anarchist, green and cooperative movements in the United States and Germany for many years. One would have thought that a person of those sympathies might have acquired some emotional intelligence during that time. Not so, it seems.

But Staudi is not only ignorant in the sense of being unable to resist insulting and abusing people who in other circumstances would be perfectly willing to have a civilised exchange of views with him; he is actually ignorant in an even more fundamental sense, and this is in his complete lack of understanding of Rudolf Steiner. To understand Rudolf Steiner it is not enough to have a good brain; you need to have a good heart, too, and to be able to apply the intelligence of the heart to initiatic language that is often difficult to comprehend with our everyday understanding. Where Steiner is concerned, poor Staudi has a tin ear; he is to the elucidation of Rudolf Steiner what Florence Foster Jenkins was to operatic recitals.

Someone whose scholarly work in the same subject area demonstrates understanding on every page (in shining contrast to Staudi’s effusions) is Dr Adrian Anderson of Melbourne, Australia. I thoroughly recommend Anderson’s e-booklet, Opponents and Critics: Criticisms of Steiner and anthroposophy, to anthroposophists and critics alike. It will take you about half an hour to read but it is well worth the time and effort. Dr Anderson addresses Staudi’s criticisms of Steiner and does not shrink away from the darker episodes of anthroposophical history. Some of what he writes will no doubt be difficult reading for anthroposophists, as well as for members of the Christian Community; but unlike Staudi’s tone-deaf tin ear, Dr Anderson has perfect pitch when evaluating Steiner’s use of language, and the problems that Steiner’s language can pose for anthroposophy and modern readers today.

Staudi is having none of this, of course, and gets his rebuttal in first, alerted by one of his toadies on the WC Yahoo group:

“Thanks to Eric for pointing this out… The new booklet is a standard anthroposophist apologia for Steiner’s racial teachings. It features the usual elements, including some entertaining misunderstandings of Steiner’s texts. One of the more striking examples is the booklet’s defense of Steiner’s 1923 complaint against the presence of black people in Europe, in particular his denunciation of the stationing of French colonial troops on German soil in the aftermath of World War One. Anderson thinks Steiner was actually referring to the African slave trade! It is hard to imagine a more thoroughgoing incomprehension of the passage in question.

The sections on Nazism are a good deal worse. Anderson believes that historians have recently “discovered” that “some German anthroposophists from the early 20th century were involved in Nazism” (golly, imagine that). The notion that this is some sort of discovery — or even especially remarkable — speaks volumes about the level of naivete and historical ignorance among all too many anthroposophists today.”

This is such an inadequate, not to say shameless, response to what is a substantial and considered piece of work that it almost beggars belief that Staudi can write in such misleading terms. Here we have all the standard Staudi tactics of scattering mud and abuse, misrepresentation of arguments, condescension and contemptful dismissal, which he employs to avoid engaging with the actual substance of the text written by Dr Anderson. Anderson demonstrates real understanding and insight in his essay and yet Staudi can’t bring himself to address any of it.

Why is this? Why is it that Staudi is so full of unremitting malevolence towards Steiner? And here I’ve recently come across an intriguing possibility: could it be that Staudi has never forgiven Steiner for criticising another Staudenmaier?

On 22nd September 1923, Steiner gave a lecture in Dornach on “The Logic and Illogic of Dreams” (GA225) and in it he referred at some length to a book called Magic as an Experimental Science by one Ludwig Staudenmaier, in which the author recounts his experiences of mediumship through channeled writing, his denial of the spirit as the source of his writing and his belief that the unconscious was responsible for it but was always lying to him. Steiner is quite amusing about what he considers to be the errors in Staudenmaier’s understanding of his experiences and the cumulative effect of these comments must have been somewhat devastating for Ludwig.

Can this have affected our present day Staudi’s attitude to Steiner? Was Ludwig related to Peter? Perhaps Turncoat Tom Mellett, Staudi’s devoted gofer, could ask on our behalf when he’s next kneeling before the Apprentice Demon.

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Filed under Anthroposophy, Staudenmaier, Waldorf critics

A personal credo

What is it that you yourself believe, I was asked. A challenging question, and one which has taken me some while to think about. The A J Balfour poem I quoted in my post of 6th April 2015 contains the following lines:

“Our highest truths are but half-truths;

Think not to settle down for ever in any truth.

Make use of it as a tent in which to pass a summer’s night,

But build no house of it, or it will be your tomb.”

Those are wise words and I quote them again here to indicate that what follows is a summary of what today I believe to be true but which I may modify at some future time, as my own insights and understanding unfold. I also think that, at our present stage of human development, any truth ought to be regarded not as a literal, objective truth but as a metaphor for a truth way beyond what we are currently capable of comprehending. But you have to start from where you are and this is where I am right now.

I believe in a Prime Cause or God, the creator of all universes, the origin of life itself, a being that is at present beyond human comprehension but who has created everything that exists, and indeed is everything that exists, including countless other realms of life and existence stretching forth into infinite eternity.

I believe that I am part of God and so are you and so is everybody and everything else; and that God lives through us and understands its own nature through the experience of the totality of creation.

I believe that at the deepest levels of our being there is in each of us a yearning to return to union with God.

I believe that we get hints or glimpses of the nature of God the unmanifest, in many different ways, but especially through our experience of loving and of being loved.

I believe that the sun is a physical symbol of the Cosmic Christ, the great spirit who came from the spiritual sun and who overlighted Jesus of Nazareth for the last three years of his life; and who is as close to my idea of God as I can currently encompass.

I believe that, just as the sun shines on all, so the Cosmic Christ overlights all human beings, irrespective of race, nation, belief or non-belief.

I believe that the Cosmic Christ is also present within the etheric body of the earth, thus every aspect of the earth is holy and should be treated with reverence.

I believe that the Cosmic Christ is that aspect of God which gives light and warmth to all life and also permeates all life, so that all of creation, including each human being, has a spark of the divine sun within itself.

I believe that we are spiritual beings currently having human experiences in physical bodies; and that we are subject to a constant cycle of birth, death and re-birth over many lifetimes.

I believe that the divine spark within each of us grows during our successive incarnations on earth; and that after many lifetimes this spark grows into a fire strong enough to transmute the physical particles of our body into light itself.

I believe that, when this stage is reached, the soul is freed from the necessity to reincarnate; but that some great souls voluntarily reincarnate so as to help the rest of struggling humanity to make progress.

I believe that the overall pattern of our present life has been set by how we lived our previous lives; and that the pattern of our next lifetime is being determined by how we live each day of this life.

I believe that the purpose of human life on earth is:

  • to unfold the divine plan for each one of us, to work out our karma and develop our consciousness in ways that can only occur in physical incarnation
  • to prepare for our return to God and our ultimate destiny of becoming co-creators with God, by learning how to use our creativity and free will with wisdom
  • to release the spirit that is encased in all matter and so transform the world through love that the earth eventually becomes the planet of love, thus fulfilling the evolutionary task of humankind.

I believe that free will is a privilege that has been given only to human beings.

I believe that life on earth is governed not only by physical laws such as gravity and action/reaction but also by a number of cosmic laws, including:

  • Reincarnation, the Law of Rebirth
  • Karma, the Law of Cause and Effect
  • The Law of Opportunity
  • The Law of Balance and Equilibrium
  • The Law of Correspondences*

I believe that the most powerful and all-pervading force in the world is Love.

I believe that Evil is also a reality in human evolution, the task of which is to divert human beings from their true goals and evolutionary opportunities.

I believe that there is no such thing as time but only one continuous moment and that consciousness is the only thing that exists.

I believe that there is nothing and no-one, however small or overlooked, that is insignificant or meaningless.

I believe that human beings are part of a world in which everything is intimately connected with everything else and “That Art Thou” is a statement of profound truth.

I believe in the existence of angels and archangels of many kinds; and that each one of us has a guardian angel.

I believe in elemental beings and the need to acknowledge their existence and work with them for the benefit of all life.

I believe that there are very many forms of non-physical life and intelligence not only on the earth but throughout the countless universes that God has created.

I believe that ‘death’ (meaning permanent extinction or non-consciousness) does not exist in any of the universes and is an illusion within the human mind.

* I have written in more detail about these cosmic laws in my posting of September 16th 2014: “Karma and the Steiner Waldorf teacher.”

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Filed under Anthroposophy, Karma, Personal Credo, What I believe

A little oil for our lamps

Once again I must express my gratitude to Alicia Hamberg, whose thoughts from a perspective that is often critical of anthroposophy, have from time to time provoked me into writing posts on this blog.

The proximate cause of what follows is something that Alicia wrote as a reply to my post of April 6th 2015, “The terror of the infinite desert: atheists in the face of death”. Here is part of what she said:

“You may very well be right that your approach — or illusion — is ‘rational’ in some ways, regardless of whether it conforms to truth. But it only works as long as you’re able to tell yourself that it is at least likely to be true! The second you start to doubt it — at least if this doubt is more than just a fleeting thought — its ability to comfort diminishes, because if there’s serious doubt, you can’t lay the worries entirely to rest! (As a side-note, what happens after death according to anthroposophy is not necessarily a comforting thought — it is quite daunting.)”

I mentioned in that posting that I’m someone who is certain that life continues after death and therefore I have no fear of dying (although I am of course afraid of a painful death or a long drawn-out disabling illness). But there is another aspect of death that I do find daunting and that is the possibility that one could be caught in a kind of limbo, unable to return to earth but either terrified or completely unaware of the possibility of moving on into the spiritual world.

As it happens, I’ve known some people with clairvoyant and healing abilities who are able to do what is called rescue work with souls who “get stuck” in the astral plane after death. This very unfortunate state can happen to people who during their earth lives have no belief in reincarnation or life after death, or who for whatever reason are very earth-bound – and it can last for hundreds or even thousands of years. It is these stuck souls who are sometimes perceived as ‘ghosts’. What seems to occur is that their very strong non-belief that life continues in a different form after death (or their shock, in the case of those who have died a violent death) prevents them from becoming aware of the higher frequency spiritual beings who have come to help them make the transition. This is where clairvoyants with a particular gift for this kind of rescue work can help, because their own “vibrations” are low enough (because they are still attached to their physical bodies) so that souls trapped in the astral plane can actually perceive these earthly helpers, and may begin to listen to their advice about how to move on.

According to a lecture given by Steiner in May 1913, “the earth is neither a mere transitional stage, nor a vale of despair, but it exists so that on it a spiritual knowledge can be developed which can then be carried upwards into the spiritual worlds.” More than this, he says that it is only on the earth that such knowledge can be acquired – it’s usually too late once you’ve died: “This is due to the fact that the content of earthly theosophy can only be acquired on earth within a physical body. It can then be made use of in the spiritual world but it must be attained within a physical body….” Steiner gave quite a few lectures in 1912 and 1913 on what life is like between death and re-birth. You can read them, if you’re interested, in the invaluable online RS Archive.

Steiner’s message in the quotation above (you can tell by the reference to theosophy that it was given at a time when he was still the general secretary of the German section of the Theosophical Society) is the same as the message of Jesus Christ’s parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins. The parable does not criticise the foolish virgins for sleeping, because the wise ones also fall asleep – but instead it takes them to task for being unprepared, for not having the oil for their lamps. The oil we all need, so that our lamps can light us into the spiritual world when the time comes, is the knowledge of what to do when we die. It’s pretty astonishing that there is so little preparation for death – after all, we have the National Childbirth Trust and pregnancy classes for the beginning of physical incarnation but when it comes to excarnation, we have few equivalents for the final stages of life – although the soul midwifery movement is doing excellent work in this field.

Rescue workers say that the basics are not that complicated – all we need to do is recognise our deceased family members and friends and go with them, or sometimes just look for a beckoning light and then follow it. I do think that atheists in particular should be prepared to be open to such possibilities when they die, even if they despise themselves for entertaining such ideas – the alternative of getting stuck for centuries is too terrible to contemplate.

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Filed under Anthroposophy, Atheism, Fear of Death

A tent in which to pass a summer’s night

‘Our highest truths are but half-truths;

Think not to settle down for ever in any truth.

Make use of it as a tent in which to pass a summer’s night,

But build no house of it, or it will be your tomb.

When you first have an inkling of its insufficiency

And begin to descry a dim counter-truth looming up beyond,

Then weep not, but give thanks:

It is the Lord’s voice whispering,

“Take up thy bed and walk.” ‘

A.J. Balfour’s poem came to mind when, after my previous posting (“The terror of the infinite desert: atheists in the face of death”) I was challenged by one of the more prominent Waldorf critics, Alicia Hamberg, to say what kind of God I believed in; and more than that, to say what kind of God Rudolf Steiner may have believed in.

The question of what kind of God I believe in I will leave for another posting; and needless to say, I am unfitted to pronounce on Rudolf Steiner’s understanding of God, for the insights of a great initiate like Steiner are beyond anything that I could truly grasp or usefully comment on. What I will attempt to do in this posting, however, is to bring together some thoughts that may help to erect a tent of these “half-truths” to shelter us for a night or two during our journey towards understanding something of Steiner’s spiritual vision.

These half-truths are of course ones that appeal to me but may not appeal to other people. Why is it that we have so many diverging views among ourselves? In his Philosophy of Freedom, Steiner introduces us to the idea of twelve world-views:

“We must be in a position to go all round the world and accustom ourselves to the twelve different standpoints from which it can be contemplated. In terms of thought, all twelve standpoints are fully justifiable. For a thinker who can penetrate into the nature of thought, there is not one single conception of the world, but twelve that can be equally justified — so far justified as to permit of equally good reasons being thought out for each of them. There are twelve such justified conceptions of the world.”

I don’t want to go into this in any more detail now but if you want to explore it further you can of course google Philosophy of Freedom. The reason for mentioning it here is that, of the twelve world-views listed by Steiner, the one to which I am most drawn is called by him Spiritism; and the one that most atheists adhere to, I would suggest, is Materialism. According to Steiner, both viewpoints are fully justifiable, with equally good reasons being thought out for each of them; and because both are valid and rational, they satisfy us and on the whole, we don’t look beyond them. A materialist may find my approach illogical and unjustifiable and I will tend to find the materialist’s approach equally unsatisfactory. The point here is that the truth does not lie within my ‘spiritist’ world-view or your ‘materialist’ world- view but perhaps in a synthesis of the twelve different world-views, or even in a quite different place altogether. The implication is that both of us would be wrong if we were to insist that our view is the only right one. To acquire access to that synthesis, that all-round view of every aspect of the truth, is part of our journey towards wisdom.

I’ve quoted this passage from Tarjei Straume before, but it bears repeating:

“People who are influenced in their habits of thought, philosophies, historical perspectives etc. by anthroposophical studies, don’t always agree. On the contrary, they quite often collide on specific issues, concepts, and perspectives. This is inevitable, because anthroposophy is not an ideology, it’s not a religion, it’s not a lifestyle (although some lifestyles have been associated with it, perceptually), and it’s not a political agenda, the idea of the Threefold Social Order notwithstanding. It may however be classified as a doctrine, or a set of doctrines — not really comparable to religious doctrines, but more to scientific doctrines, say like the doctrine of heliocentrism that was introduced by Copernicus and Galileo in the 16th and 17th centuries — a theory that was officially prohibited by the Church in 1616 but is now so absorbed and widespread that anything that contradicts it is heresy. Thus it may be argued that the anthroposophical worldview is a relatively new heretical theory that may replace Copernicanism, Newtonianism, Darwinism, and Einsteinism in the future…

What it all boils down to, however, is that anthroposophy is nothing but a path to the Spirit available to everyone and basically compatible with any cultural or religious background, including secular humanism. As a matter of fact, humanism is the basis, the point of departure, for the epistemology that is the backdrop of anthroposophy and therefore also its backbone.”

This is clearly not the kind of humanism espoused by the British Humanist Association, whose slogan is: “For the one life we have”. How can they be so sure? Could it be that most of their members are people who take what Steiner calls the Materialist world-view? But these humanists may be surprised to read what Steiner had to say about religion in his 1899 essay on Egoism in Philosophy:

“One way man comes to terms with the outer world consists, therefore, in his regarding his inner being as something outer; he sets this inner being, which he has transferred into the outer world, both over nature and over himself as ruler and lawgiver.

This characterises the standpoint of the religious person. A divine world order is a creation of the human spirit. But the human being is not clear about the fact that the content of this world order has sprung from his own spirit. He therefore transfers it outside himself and subordinates himself to his own creation.

… This way of coming to terms with the world reveals a basic characteristic of human nature. No matter how unclear the human being might be about his relationship to the world, he nevertheless seeks within himself the yardstick by which to measure all things. Out of a kind of unconscious feeling of sovereignty he decides on the absolute value of all happenings. No matter how one studies this, one finds that there are countless people who believe themselves governed by gods; there are none who do not independently, over the heads of the gods, judge what pleases or displeases these gods. The religious person cannot set himself up as the lord of the world; but he does indeed determine, out of his own absolute power, the likes and dislikes of the ruler of the world.

One need only look at religious natures and one will find my assertions confirmed. What proclaimer of gods has not at the same time determined quite exactly what pleases these gods and what is repugnant to them? Every religion has its wise teachings about the cosmos, and each also asserts that its wisdom stems from one or more gods.

If one wants to characterise the standpoint of the religious person one must say: He seeks to judge the world out of himself, but he does not have the courage also to ascribe to himself the responsibility for this judgment; therefore he invents beings for himself in the outer world that he can saddle with this responsibility.

Such considerations seem to me to answer the question: What is religion? The content of religion springs from the human spirit. But the human spirit does not want to acknowledge this origin to itself. The human being submits himself to his own laws, but he regards these laws as foreign. He establishes himself as ruler over himself. Every religion establishes the human “I” as regent of the world. Religion’s being consists precisely in this, that it is not conscious of this fact. It regards as revelation from outside what it actually reveals to itself.

The human being wishes to stand at the topmost place in the world. But he does not dare to pronounce himself the pinnacle of creation. Therefore he invents gods in his own image and lets the world be ruled by them. When he thinks this way, he is thinking religiously.”

I doubt if there is any member of the British Humanist Association who would disagree with any of this and, indeed, it may come as a shock to some anthroposophists that Steiner held such views. The whole essay is well worth reading, as it leads on to some really insightful observations about the work of philosophers throughout the ages.

But Steiner is not content to leave things just with this piercing analysis of religious thinking – and this is where he diverges from secular humanists, who often stop at this point – because he goes on to say that active self-knowledge opens a person to the essential being of the world, with which he is inwardly then so united that he can say with equal truth, “I am” and “I am the world.” The other person’s self also is and is the world, so conflict and disagreement, belief and non-belief are simply irrelevant.

How does one acquire this active self-knowledge? In the last chapter of Steiner’s Riddles of Philosophy (1914), he refers to soul exercises given earlier in the book and elsewhere and says that these exercises can result in the soul unfolding a different consciousness than its ordinary one and thus arrive at spiritual perception. And it is only through this different spiritual perception that the soul can truly know itself and consciously experience itself in its essential being. He also realises that many people will not be able to go along with this:

“It is only too obvious that the adherents of many modern points of view will consign the world revealed here to the realm of mental aberration, of illusion, of hallucination, of auto-suggestion, and the like. One can only answer them that an earnest striving of the soul — working in the way just indicated — finds, in the inner, spiritual state which it has developed, the means to distinguish between illusion and spiritual reality; and these means are just as sure as those used in ordinary life, in a healthy state of soul, to distinguish between something imaginary and something actually perceived. One will search in vain for theoretical proof that the spiritual world characterised above is real; but such proof of the reality of the perceptual world does not exist either. In both cases it is the experience itself that determines how one is to judge.

What keeps many people from taking the step which, according to our presentation, alone offers a prospect of solving the riddles of philosophy is that they believe such a step will land them in a realm of nebulous mysticism. But anyone who has no soul predisposition toward such nebulous mysticism will, along the path just described, gain access to a world of soul experience that is just as crystal clear in itself as the structures of mathematical ideas…”

So Steiner is saying that through true perception of the nature of reality, the human ‘I’ can participate fully in the essential nature of everything – there is no longer a need to invent a God that is separate from ourselves because in fact we are ourselves, in the happy phrase of the late Sir George Trevelyan, droplets of divinity. What does this mean, both for us as human beings and in terms of Steiner’s own insights into the prime cause? There is much more to explore here!

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Filed under Anthroposophy, Atheism, Humanism, Philosophy of Freedom, Rudolf Steiner

The terror of the infinite desert: atheists in the face of death

When I was in my teenage years, I called myself an atheist. In my twenties, although still professing atheism if anyone asked about religious beliefs, I modified my stance to agnosticism. In my next decade, in 1984 when I was thirty three, I experienced an epiphany, which decisively changed my spiritual outlook. Since then, I’ve had other experiences which have made me certain that there is more in heaven and earth than is dreamed of in the atheist’s philosophy.

Today, atheism seems to me to be an adolescent phase of belief that some people get stuck in all their lives, either through a failure of imagination, a kind of anger with “God” or a rigidity of thinking. Nevertheless, many people persist with it and find it decidedly infra dig to hold any kind of view other than atheistic materialism.

If I’d been able to move in the literary and artistic circles to which I was most drawn when I was younger, I would like to have known successful writers such as Julian Barnes and Jenny Diski. If I’d ever got to meet them, I wouldn’t have had the intellectual self-confidence to say that I didn’t share their atheism, which to my mind has to some extent limited their capacity to be truly great writers; but I can still read their works with interest and enjoyment and the sympathy that comes from being of a similar generation. So when tragedy has struck them, as it has in recent years, and they have written about it, because that’s what writers do, my heart goes out to them as if they were long-standing friends whom I would help if I could.

Julian Barnes wrote a book about his fear of death called Nothing to be Frightened Of. With terrible irony this was published six months before his beloved wife, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh, was diagnosed with a brain tumour. She died in October 2008, just thirty-seven days after the diagnosis. They had been married since 1979. In Levels of Life, published in 2013, he writes about his grief: “I was 32 when we met, 62 when she died. The heart of my life; the life of my heart.” He contemplates suicide and goes so far as to work out how he will do it; but then he realises that he is his wife’s chief rememberer, and if he kills himself he will be killing her too.

Pat Kavanagh & Julian Barnes in Venice - photo via the Daily Telegraph

Pat Kavanagh & Julian Barnes in Venice – photo via the Daily Telegraph

I feel that I know Jenny Diski well, even though we have never met, because I used to know people who could have been her; and she writes wonderfully well about herself. She had a pretty grim childhood and spent some of it as in- or outpatient at various psychiatric institutions. A natural rebel and a child of the ’60s, with all that that implies, she was taken into the Mornington Crescent home of the novelist Doris Lessing, whose son had told her about Jenny’s difficult family life. Eventually, Jenny was able to resume her education; and by the early 1970s was training as a teacher, starting a free school, and later publishing her first book. In September 2014, Jenny revealed in an article in the London Review of Books that she had been diagnosed with inoperable cancer. Since then, she has published several moving articles about her thoughts, feelings and experiences while facing death from cancer. In the 9th April 2015 issue, she expresses her views as an atheist about the nature of life and death by quoting both Samuel Beckett and Vladimir Nabokov

“I too shall cease and be as when I was not yet, only all over instead of in store.”

From an Abandoned Work (Beckett)

“The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness” Speak, Memory (Nabokov)

Jenny Diski - photo via The Guardian

Jenny Diski – photo via The Guardian

Neither Beckett nor Nabokov are writers I would go to for reassurance when facing death but Jenny finds some solace in the thought that we have but one life between nothingness:

“This thought, this fact, is a genuine comfort, the only one that works, to calm me down when the panic comes. It brings me real solace in the terror of the infinite desert. It doesn’t resolve the question (though as an atheist I don’t really have one), but it offers me familiarity with ‘the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns’. I’ve been there. I’ve done that. And it soothes. When I find myself trembling at the prospect of extinction, I can steady myself by thinking of the abyss that I have already experienced. Sometimes I can almost take a kindly, unhurried interest in my own extinction. The not-being that I have already been. I whisper it to myself, like a mantra or a lullaby.”

As someone who is certain that life continues after physical death, I can say that I have no fear of dying, although I do have fear of a painful death or a long drawn-out disabling illness. But for atheists it must be far worse. Here is what Julian Baggini, philosopher and author of “Atheism: A Very Short Introduction” has to say:

“I think it’s time we atheists ‘fessed up and admitted that life without God can sometimes be pretty grim. Appropriating the label “heathen” is part of this. Heathens are unredeemed outcasts from heaven who roam the planet without hope of surviving the deaths of their bodies. They may have values but they are not secured by any divine source. Yet we embrace this because we think it represents the truth. And so we don’t just get on and enjoy life, we embark on our own intellectual pilgrimages, trying to make some progress in a universe on which no meaning has been writ. The journey can be wonderful but it can also be arduous and it may end horribly. But there is no other way, and anyone who urges you to follow a path that they promise leads to a bright future is either gravely mistaken or a charlatan.”

So as someone who could be gravely mistaken but hopes he is not a charlatan, is there anything comforting I could say to Julian Barnes or Jenny Diski? I apologise to them in advance for this assumption that I can address them as familiars. Julian Barnes has written in Flaubert’s Parrot: “Why does the writing make us chase the writer? Why can’t we leave well enough alone? Why aren’t the books enough?” Well, Julian, we pay good money to buy your books, which seem to take us some way into your life, and so we like to imagine that we know, and can say things, to you.

I don’t think it would be any good for me to try to reason, since you will undoubtedly regard my standpoint as irrational (although I might ask in passing: how do you suppose that life can come from lifeless matter and randomness? It’s like saying that a corpse is the true being of Man).

Nor do I think that it would cut any ice with you if I were to refer to anthroposophy, as you would only roll your eyes at my gauche attempt to introduce something so foreign to intellectual good manners. From your perspective, it would require an unfeasibly large amount of disbelief-suspension to take on board Rudolf Steiner’s cosmology: etheric and astral bodies, planetary evolutions, elemental beings, Lucifer, Ahriman, asuras and the rest. It would be like Alice in Wonderland with the White Queen:

“Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.”

“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

But an even worse hurdle than getting past the jargon and the strange concepts, is that anthroposophy claims to be a science of the spirit, which implies that the results will be reproducible by anyone who masters the same necessary tools of cognition as Rudolf Steiner. Atheists find this claim particularly challenging in a way that they would not if anthroposophy called itself a religion. And this is a pity, because anthroposophy has great insights and indeed, comfort and reassurance for anyone who is scared of death.

One of the most important ways in which anthroposophy can help with this fear is by increasing understanding of the cosmic laws of karma and reincarnation that govern all our lives. The atheist’s key premise, of course, is that life and consciousness are inconceivable without a physical body – the existence of a living being without a physical counterpart is simply not possible and death extinguishes individual existence completely. Through anthroposophy we learn that this notion of one single life lived between not-being and extinction is simply wrong – a cruel illusion that can only increase the terror of death.

Anthroposophy tells us that the true reality of being human is that we are spiritual beings currently having human experiences in physical bodies. That is the true nature of what it means to be a human being – we come from the spirit and we will return to the spirit and this cycle continues over many lifetimes. And although this posting is about death, we should never forget that there is also life before birth, and indeed before conception. Steiner called this “unbornness” and said that the human soul’s will to incarnate exists before conception takes place.

If in former times we had been candidates for initiation, we might have experienced the reality of life beyond the physical body through what was called the “temple sleep”. After various trials, the priest or hierophant would have put us to sleep, then caused our etheric bodies to leave the physical bodies for three and a half days. During this time our etheric and astral bodies would have journeyed in the spiritual world. When our etheric bodies were brought back into the physical, we would have awakened and known with absolute certainty, through direct experience, of the reality of the spiritual world.

Human physical and metaphysical evolution has moved on and the temple sleep initiation ritual is no longer performed. Nowadays, comparable experiences can sometimes be had via shamanism. But in our present era, which extends from the 15th to the 35th century and is often called by anthroposophists the age of the consciousness soul, the spiritual world has largely withdrawn from the physical world for necessary reasons of human evolution. In Owen Barfield’s words, “Living in the consciousness soul man experiences isolation, loneliness, materialism, loss of faith in the spiritual world, above all, uncertainty. The soul has to make up its mind and to act in a positive way on its own unsupported initiative. And it finds great difficulty in doing so. For it is too much in the dark to be able to see any clear reason why it should, and it no longer feels the old (instinctive) promptings of the spirit within.”

But I suspect that anthroposophy is way beyond anything you want to hear at this stage, so perhaps you would prefer to know what a scientist has to say about these matters. I was interested to see reports in the press in 2013 of some comments made by a British doctor called Sam Parnia who is head of intensive care at the university hospital in New York and who specialises in what you might call resurrection, because he is an expert in resuscitation techniques for people who have suffered cardiac arrest. Dr. Parnia is also a researcher into near death experiences and what he calls actual death experiences. He has talked to many people about what they recall experiencing while they were dead in his intensive care unit. About half claim to have clear recollections, many of which involve looking down on the surgical team at work on their body or the familiar image of a bright threshold or a tunnel of light into which they were being drawn.   And when he was asked what conclusions he has drawn, he said this:

“When I first got interested in these mind/body questions, I was astonished to find that no-one had even begun to put forward a theory about exactly how neurons in the brain can generate thoughts. We always assume that all scientists believe the brain produces the mind, but in fact there are plenty who are not certain of that. Even prominent neuroscientists such as Sir John Eccles, a Nobel prizewinner, believe that we are never going to understand mind through neuronal activity. All I can say is what I have observed from my work. It seems that when consciousness shuts down in death, psyche or soul – by which I don’t mean ghosts, I mean your individual self – persists for at least those hours before you are resuscitated. From which you might justifiably begin to conclude that the brain is acting as an intermediary to manifest your idea of soul or self but it may not be the source or originator of it… I think that the evidence is beginning to suggest that we should keep open our minds to the possibility that memory, while obviously a scientific entity of some kind – I’m not saying it is magic or anything like that –is not neuronal.”

Dr Sam Parnia - photo via Stonybrook University

Dr Sam Parnia – photo via Stonybrook University

Well, there you have it – an eminent doctor and scientist who says that the mind and memory do not reside in the brain. Like you, Jenny and Julian, he does not have any religious faith, but he does observe that consciousness continues after “death”.

Is it possible that given a little more time and further research doctors might one day come to the conclusion that memory actually resides in something called the etheric body? We shall see! As Steiner said, “it is well to remember that, in the last analysis, there is nothing else in the universe beside consciousnesses…Thus beings in various states of consciousness are the only reality in the world.”

Let us leave the last word to Rainer Maria Rilke, to my mind a surer and wiser guide to the nature of reality than either Beckett or Nabokov:

“It is truly strange to no longer inhabit the earth,

to no longer practice customs barely acquired,

not to give a meaning of human futurity

to roses, and other expressly promising things:

no longer to be what one was in endlessly anxious hands,

and to set aside even one’s own

proper name like a broken plaything.

Strange: not to go on wishing one’s wishes. Strange

to see all that was once in place, floating

so loosely in space. And it’s hard being dead,

and full of retrieval, before one gradually feels

a little eternity…”

Rainer Maria Rilke – part of the first elegy from the Duino Elegies

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Filed under Anthroposophy, Atheism, Dr Sam Parnia, Fear of Death, Jenny Diski, Julian Barnes

Franz Kafka meets Rudolf Steiner

Mention of Franz Kafka in my previous posting has reminded me that there was in fact a meeting between Kafka and Rudolf Steiner. It happened in Prague in March 1911. Steiner was in Prague delivering a series of lectures on the subject of An Occult Physiology. Kafka had first come across Steiner at Mrs Berta Fanta’s salon on Old Town Square, a famous meeting place for intellectuals during the two-decade period before the First World War. These gatherings were attended by professors at the German university in Prague, including Albert Einstein and Christian von Ehrenfels, as well as the up-and-coming younger generation such as Kafka and Max Brod. (Einstein also met Steiner at Mrs Fanta’s salon and attended several of Steiner’s lectures held in the Café Louvre, an Art Nouveau café on Národní třída, and was apparently impressed by Steiner’s views on non-Euclidean geometry.)

Rudolf Steiner in 1911, the year he met Franz Kafka

Rudolf Steiner in 1911, the year he met Franz Kafka

Kafka attended two of Steiner’s lectures and records his reactions in what seems to be an ironical tone (or is it perhaps just an intense observation in an attempt to understand?) in his diary entries of 26th and 28th March 1911. On 26th March he comments on Steiner’s rhetorical trick of giving full weight to the views of his opponents, so that “the listener now considers any refutation to be completely impossible and is more than satisfied with a cursory description of the possibility of a defence”; Kafka then observes: “Continual looking at the palm of the extended hand. Omission of the full stop. In general, the spoken sentence starts off from the speaker with its initial capital letter, curves in its course, as far as it can, out to the audience, and returns with the full stop to the speaker. But if the full stop is omitted then the sentence, no longer held in check, falls upon the listener immediately with full force.” Kafka was to do something similar in his own works, by writing long sentences that sometimes cover an entire page. Kafka’s sentences then deliver an unexpected impact just before the full stop, which gives a final meaning and focus to what has gone before.

On 28th March he comes back to Steiner in his diary, either referring to another or to the same lecture, which he proceeds to gently guy, interspersing this with comments about his neighbour in the audience:

“Dr Steiner is so very much taken up with his absent disciples. At the lecture the dead press so about him. Hunger for knowledge? But do they really need it? . . . Löwy Simon, soap dealer on Quai Moncey, Paris, got the best business advice from him . . . .The wife of the Hofrat therefore has in her notebook, How does One Achieve Knowledge of the Higher Worlds? At S. Löwy’s in Paris.”

Kafka would have been around 28 years old at this time. He seemed to find the tasks of daily existence very difficult, was often lonely and depressed and regarded himself as a perpetual outsider – a German speaker in Prague, a Jew among Christians. Although he had had encounters with some of the leading personalities of the age – apart from meeting Steiner, he had seen Nijinsky dance and had met Einstein, Rilke and Puccini – his experience of the wider world was limited. At university he studied law and then obtained jobs within first one, then another insurance company, work which he resented as it kept him away from his writing. He lived and worked within the same small area of Prague and its surroundings all his life. Despite a fervent longing to be independent, he spent the whole of his short life (he died at the age of 40, probably from starvation due to an inability to eat as a result of laryngeal tuberculosis) resenting that he was either living with his parents in what has been described as “an atmosphere of claustrophobic mutual surveillance” or else with one of his sisters. He had a strong sex drive but seems to have been unable to have satisfactory relationships with women, as he lacked the capacity for losing himself in loving another person. “For even the most intimate friend to set foot in my room,” he told his unfortunate fiancee, Felice Bauer, “fills me with terror.”

Franz Kafka with his fiancee, Felice Bauer

Franz Kafka with his fiancee, Felice Bauer

Kafka attributed his psychological difficulties to having “vigorously absorbed the negative element of the age in which I live.” He had a difficult relationship with his father, who was described by Kafka’s biographer Stanley Corngold as a “huge, selfish, overbearing businessman.” Kafka seems to have been psychic to some degree and in his diary admitted to suffering from “bouts of clairvoyance.”   A huge issue for him during this period was how to create for himself the necessary space for literature when his employment encroached upon his writing time and his family and society expected him to make a living, marry, and raise his own family. Whatever the reasons, in his writings Kafka captured like no other author before him themes such as father-son conflict, alienation, physical and psychological brutality, characters on a terrifying quest, encounters with arbitrary and unjust bureaucracy and mystical transformation.

In spite of what may have been his ironical tone in connection with Steiner’s lecture, Kafka evidently decided that Rudolf Steiner might be able to help him to find his life’s direction and made an appointment to see Steiner in his hotel room in Prague. Kafka records in his diary his impressions of this visit:

“In his room I try to show my humility, which I cannot feel, by seeking out a ridiculous place for my hat . I lay it down on a small wooden stand for lacing boots. . . Table in the middle, I sit facing the window, he on the left side of the table. . . . He begins with a few disconnected sentences. So you are Dr. Kafka? Have you been interested in theosophy long? But I push on with my prepared address: I feel that a great part of my being is striving toward theosophy, but at the same time I have the greatest fear of it. That is to say, I am afraid it will result in a new confusion which would be very bad for me, because even my present unhappiness consists only of confusion. This confusion is as follows: My happiness, my abilities, and every possibility of being useful in any way have always been in the literary field. And here I have, to be sure, experienced states (not many) which in my opinion correspond very closely to the clairvoyant states described by you, Herr Doktor, in which I completely dwelt in every idea, but also filled every idea, and in which I not only felt myself at my boundary, but at the boundary of the human in general. Only the calm of enthusiasm, which is probably characteristic of the clairvoyant, was still lacking in those states, even if not completely. I conclude this from the fact that I did not write the best of my works in those states. I cannot now devote myself completely to this literary field, as would be necessary and indeed for various reasons. Aside from my family relationships, I could not live by literature if only, to begin with, because of the slow maturing of my work and its special character; besides I am prevented also by my health and my character from devoting myself to what is, in the most favorable case, an uncertain life. I have therefore become an official in a social insurance agency. Now these two professions can never be reconciled with one another and admit a common fortune. The smallest good fortune in the one becomes a great misfortune in the other. . . . Outwardly, I fulfill my duties satisfactorily at the office, not my inner duties, however, and every unfulfilled inner duty becomes a misfortune that never leaves. And to these two never-to-be-reconciled endeavours shall I now add theosophy as a third? Will it not disturb both the others and itself be disturbed by both? . . . This is what I have come to ask you, Herr Doktor.”

It’s unfortunate for our curiosity that Kafka is so focused on himself and his problems that he doesn’t record how Steiner responded to this speech. All Kafka reports is this:

“He listened very attentively without apparently looking at me at all, entirely devoted to my words. He nodded from time to time, which he seems to consider an aid to strict concentration. At first a quiet head cold disturbed him, his nose ran, he kept working his handkerchief deep into his nose, one finger in each nostril.”

There is perhaps a little too much information in that last sentence and not enough anywhere else. There is no further mention of Steiner in the diaries, apart from one piece of advice from the same meeting: “Herr Kafka, essen Sie keine Eier.” (“Mr. Kafka, don’t eat eggs.”)

Can we make a guess at what else Steiner had said to him? It seems probable that Steiner realised that Kafka’s life would be a short one and that in his remaining time he would need to focus as much as possible on his writing. We may surmise that Steiner told Kafka to concentrate on literature above all else.

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Filed under Anthroposophy, Franz Kafka, Rudolf Steiner