I’ve just been reading one of Rudolf Steiner’s more esoteric lectures, The Four Sacrifices of Christ, which he gave in Basle, Switzerland, on 1st June 1914. It’s a remarkable lecture, in which Steiner says that in earlier ages the Christ intervened three times in human affairs before he was incarnated in the human body of Jesus of Nazareth and underwent the crucifixion. Steiner has some mind-stretching things to say about unselfishness, extending the concept to our eyes, the natural world, our vital organs, and our thinking, feeling and willing. For reasons of concision, I don’t want to say anything more here but would recommend that you read the lecture for yourself.
What I do want to focus on in this post, however, is the importance of Steiner’s overall message from the lecture, which is how very much the quality of unselfishness is needed today:
“It must come to be realised that a school of unselfishness is needed in our present culture. A renewing of responsibility, a deepening of man’s moral life, can only come through a training in unselfishness, and under the conditions of the present age only those can go through this school who have won for themselves an understanding of real, all-pervading selflessness.”
Well, our present age certainly provides us with a schooling in the consequences of selfishness, which we see every day in its personal, national and international manifestations. Our current paradigm, which stems from the model of Anglo-American capitalism, was started in Britain on the basis of self-interest, greed, fear, exploitation of natural resources and dominion over others and has now become our most successful export. It’s sad to see that this has been taken up with enthusiasm in countries such as India and China. It is this model that has brought us to our present pass in which, if everyone on the planet consumed as much as the average US citizen, four Earths would be needed to sustain us. It is this fundamental selfishness which has led us to the crazy position that now threatens the entire planet.
So we need to pay urgent attention to Steiner’s message that “under the influence of materialism the natural unselfishness of mankind was lost to an extent that will be fully realised only in the distant future. But by contemplating the Mystery of Golgotha, by permeating our knowledge of it with all our feeling, we may acquire again, with our whole soul-being, an education in selflessness. We may say that what Christ did for earthly evolution was included in the fundamental impulse of selflessness, and what He may become for the conscious development of the human soul is the school of unselfishness.”
But unselfishness is so rare these days, such an unexpected phenomenon in human culture, that I had to rack my brain to find some current examples that might inspire us. Thinking about it for a while, I came across some instances close to home – literally so in my first example.
About a year ago we moved to a new house and just lately I’ve been enjoying myself by planning a small orchard in our garden. While considering which varieties of apple, pear, plum, etc to grow, I’ve had to think about rootstocks. Many fruit trees do not grow on their own roots but instead skilled nurserymen and women graft scions of desirable varieties onto special rootstocks. These rootstocks control factors such as rate of growth, size of tree and the age at which trees come into bearing. Many of these rootstocks were developed at the East Malling Research Station in Kent during the early decades of the 20th century. The breakthroughs made there were so successful that today 80% of the world’s apple orchards grow on rootstocks pioneered in East Malling. Very many home gardeners (soon to include me) have also benefited from these discoveries. The point about this is that these rootstocks were never patented but simply released into the world as a self-evident good that should not be exploited for profit. As such, they spread rapidly around the globe and are now to be found in many countries.
Evelyn Dunbar A 1944 Pastoral: Land Girls Pruning at East Malling 1944 (3′ x 4′: 91 x 121cm) Manchester City Art Gallery
My second example of unselfishness is also close to home, or rather, to work. I have a part-time job at Tablehurst Community Farm in Forest Row, East Sussex. Both Tablehurst and its sister farm, Plaw Hatch, farm on land which is owned by St Anthony’s Trust, a local charity whose charitable objectives include the training of biodynamic farmers and growers. The Tablehurst land was given – yes, given – to the Trust in a magnificent altruistic gesture by Emerson College in 2004. St Anthony’s Trust, in turn, has carried out a truly revolutionary act when seen against today’s society norms. It has refused to use the land as an asset to be borrowed against or mortgaged. Instead, it says to the farms: you can farm this land and use the buildings on the land, as long as you undertake to farm biodynamically. The farms pay very reasonable rents to the Trust, which in turn invests in the training of tomorrow’s farmers and growers. These acts of unselfishness have enabled two flourishing community farm enterprises to grow and develop and to employ between them nearly sixty people who produce superb food for their local communities, while looking after the land, the plants and the animals to the highest standards of husbandry. Capital to support new farm infrastructure and machinery is raised through the financial support of the community rather than through taking out loans.
This could never have happened in that situation which is so common today, where land is treated as a fast-appreciating capital asset either to be sold to enrich the owner or to be used as security against loans, and which then saddles the farmer with huge debts to be serviced, which is rather like having a noose around your neck. Imagine what could be the effect on agriculture if a similar model were to be taken up by communities around the world and if we were to say to farmers: “Farms today need the active support of their neighbouring communities. We believe that local farms supplying local customers is the best way of ensuring food security, wholesome food for us and our families, and kindness toward land and animals; and therefore as a community we are going to provide you with land so that you can farm on our behalf and with our support, without the need to get into debt.” Such collective acts of unselfishness would transform our world – the Monsanto model of farming would wither as if under a drenching of glyphosate.
The third example of unselfishness will be known to most of us; the pharmacist Sir Alexander Fleming is revered not just because of his discovery of penicillin – the antibiotic that has saved millions of lives – but also due to his efforts to ensure that it was freely available to as much of the world’s population as possible. Fleming could have become a hugely wealthy man if he had decided to control and license the substance, but he understood that penicillin’s potential to overcome diseases such as syphilis, gangrene and tuberculosis meant it had to be released into the world to serve the greater good. Fleming chose not to patent his discovery of penicillin, stating, “I did not invent penicillin. Nature did that. I only discovered it by accident.” Fleming’s goal was to develop a cheap and effective drug that would be available to all the world. It has saved millions of lives since.
This story doesn’t end quite so happily, however, since selfishness and greed crept back in. In 1939, Dr. Howard Florey, a future Nobel Laureate, and three colleagues at Oxford University began intensive research and were able to demonstrate penicillin’s ability to kill infectious bacteria. As the war with Germany continued to drain industrial and government resources, the British scientists could not produce the quantities of penicillin needed for clinical trials on humans and turned to the United States for help. They were quickly referred to a laboratory in Peoria, Illinois, where scientists were already working on fermentation methods to increase the growth rate of fungal cultures. On July 9, 1941, Howard Florey and other scientists from Oxford University came to the US with a valuable package containing a small amount of penicillin and began work at Peoria.
By November 26, 1941, Dr Andrew J. Moyer, the lab’s expert on the nutrition of moulds, had succeeded, with the assistance of one of the Oxford scientists, in increasing the yields of penicillin 10 times. In 1943, the required clinical trials were performed and penicillin was shown to be the most effective antibacterial agent to date. Penicillin production was quickly scaled up and became available in quantity to treat Allied soldiers wounded on D-Day.
As a result of their work, Fleming and two members of the British group were awarded the Nobel Prize. Dr. Moyer from the Peoria laboratory was inducted into the Inventors’ Hall of Fame and both the British and Peoria laboratories were designated as International Historic Chemical Landmarks. However, on May 25, 1948, Dr Moyer was granted a patent for a method of the mass production of penicillin and thus became a very rich man.
Until this day the British regret that, for ethical reasons, they had asked Florey not to file for a patent on penicillin. The University of Oxford never got its share from the fabulous profits made from penicillin in the US and, to add insult to injury, the UK had to pay licensing fees to US companies.
We could say that Big Pharma has carried on in exactly the same way ever since; and today, despite the mounting evidence of increasing germ resistance to existing antibiotics, the giant pharmaceutical corporations are not researching new antibiotics because they don’t think there will be enough money in it for them. “Without urgent, coordinated action by many stakeholders, the world is headed for a post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries which have been treatable for decades can once again kill,” warned Dr Keiji Fukuda, who is the World Health Organisation’s assistant director general for health security.
Antibiotics are usually only prescribed for a week or so, meaning that they are less lucrative than treatments for conditions – like high cholesterol – which have to be taken daily over a long period. So we can see that the selfishness of these big corporations is likely to lead directly to the post-antibiotic era and the return of deaths caused by common infections and minor injuries warned of by the WHO. It seems relevant to quote again from Steiner’s lecture:
“…In relation to our moral life, our understanding of the world, and in relation to all the activities of our consciousness soul, we must first become selfless. This is a duty of our present culture to the future. Mankind must become more and more selfless; therein lies the future of right living, and of all the deeds of love possible to earthly humanity. Our conscious life is and must be on its way to unselfishness. In a certain connection, essential unselfishness already exists in us, and it would be the greatest misfortune for earthly man if certain sections of his being were as self-seeking as he still is in his moral, intellectual and emotional life”
One final example of unselfishness and what it can mean for the world, so as to end on a more cheerful note. Beyond the fact that you are using it to read these words, the Web has undeniably had a major impact on a large part of the world’s population. It’s certainly one of the most significant inventions of recent times, and one of the reasons it has taken off in such a spectacular way, and led to so many further innovations, was because Sir Tim Berners-Lee decided not to patent it. No patent, so no royalty cheques for Sir Tim; but this farsighted act of unselfishness allowed the Web to spread around the world.