Back in 2014, at the summer conference of the Anthroposophical Society in Great Britain (ASGB) I was heartened to hear the then recently appointed general secretary, Marjatta van Boeschoten, announce that the ASGB Council was seriously considering a name change for the society. I was even more encouraged that the members present seemed to be overwhelmingly in favour of such a change and wanted the society to play a much more active, outward-facing role in the world.
Four years on, it’s apparent that other counsels have prevailed and that changing the society’s name was felt to be more than the members (or perhaps Dornach) would stand for. But it still seems to me that, if our intention is to help other people to find out more about what it really means to be a human being, then the word “anthroposophy”, at least in the English-speaking world, is a hindrance rather than a help.
To the ear of an English speaker, “anthroposophy” and “anthroposophical” are not only difficult to pronounce but they also sound vaguely cult-like, perhaps causing the listener to bracket us alongside Scientology or the Jehovah’s Witnesses. “What’s in a name?” asked Juliet in the balcony scene of Romeo and Juliet: “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. This may be true, but if the rose were called Sticky Willy, Knobweed or Nipplewort, then I doubt whether today it would be the national flower of England.
So names do matter in terms of shaping perceptions, and we should ask ourselves whether “anthroposophy” is doing us any favours. From where did Steiner get the name? According to Wikipedia:
The term began to appear with some frequency in philosophical works of the mid- and late-nineteenth century. In the early part of that century, Ignaz Troxler used the term anthroposophy to refer to philosophy deepened to self-knowledge, which he suggested allows deeper knowledge of nature as well. He spoke of human nature as a mystical unity of God and world. Immanuel Hermann Fichte used the term anthroposophy to refer to “rigorous human self-knowledge,” achievable through thorough comprehension of the human spirit and of the working of God in this spirit, in his 1856 work Anthropology: The Study of the Human Soul. In 1872, the philosopher of religion Gideon Spicker used the term anthroposophy to refer to self-knowledge that would unite God and world: “the true study of the human being is the human being, and philosophy’s highest aim is self-knowledge, or Anthroposophy.” In 1882, the philosopher Robert Zimmermann published the treatise, An Outline of Anthroposophy: Proposal for a System of Idealism on a Realistic Basis,proposing that idealistic philosophy should employ logical thinking to extend empirical experience.” Steiner attended lectures by Zimmermann at the University of Vienna in the early 1880s, and it is therefore possible that this is where he came across the term.
From this it is clear that Steiner didn’t invent the name, nor did he think it so special that it should be kept for all time. In a lecture given in Dornach on April 15th1923, Steiner made the following remark: “If I had my way, I would give anthroposophy a new name every day to prevent people from hanging on to its literal meaning, from translating it from the Greek, so they can form judgments accordingly. It is immaterial what name we attach to what is being done here. The only thing that matters is that everything we do here is focused on life’s realities and that we never lose sight of them. We must never be tempted to implement sectarian ideas.”
And yet the irony is that anthroposophy has often been accused by some misguided or malicious “skeptics” as promoting sectarian or even crackpot ideas. “Life’s realities”, according to these people, include their beliefs that we have just one lifetime; that our consciousness is extinguished with death; that there is no such thing as a spiritual world existing alongside the physical world and that the only real things are those which are material.
Yet surely it is these materialistic ways of regarding the world which have in large part brought humanity and our planet to its present parlous state. Materialistic civilisation has led to environmental degradation on such a scale that the entire biosphere of the earth is now under serious threat. Nationalism, religious and racial hatreds and political confrontation are making the world a much more dangerous place than at any time since the Second World War. The powerful, prosperous industrial nations keep the majority of the Earth’s inhabitants in the Third World in economic dependence and abject poverty. In many dictatorships, human rights are routinely violated. But, even in supposedly advanced democracies, the dignity of the free human being is assaulted in many ways by the media, by commerce, by schooling systems and materialistic science dominated by economic interests.
Insights gained from anthroposophy show us what each of us can and should do – politically, economically and spiritually – to work effectively against these challenges and all their associated problems. Yet since 1925, the year of Steiner’s death, what has the Anthroposophical Society done to help turn the tide? Why have there been no attempts by the Society to engage in the general development of society by way of contributing to public discourse?
I’m not suggesting that the Society should be putting its opinions into the world. One of the outstanding features of the Society is that members are not asked to sign up to any opinions or articles of faith, or pledge themselves to carry out any obligations. A member’s opinions are her or his own, and they cannot hold heterodox views as there is no anthroposophical orthodoxy. This of course means that neither the national societies nor the General Anthroposophical Society in Dornach can make any pronouncements in the name of the members. But I am suggesting that where anthroposophy has real knowledge and insights to contribute, then the Society should be bringing them forward into the public realm. Anthroposophy is here not only for its members but is also (and I would say, primarily) an approach to life created by Rudolf Steiner for the transformation of consciousness both of individuals and society, thus leading to the increasing wellbeing and development of the world and its inhabitants.
What then should be the role of anthroposophy in today’s society? Is anthroposophy just something that is for individuals to pursue in quest of their own spiritual development, or is it also meant to make a vital difference to the way in which society is organised and how human beings live their lives? If the latter aim is accepted as legitimate, does anyone experience the Anthroposophical Society as a community in which current world problems are discussed openly and freely, dealt with from a position of real knowledge and insight and then communicated to the interested public? I’m being very unfair, of course, in order to make my point that since Steiner’s death, anthroposophy hasn’t had the impact in the world that he had envisaged. Part of the reason for this, of course, is that without the leadership of a charismatic initiate such as Steiner, the Society no longer generates the same kind of intensity of response as it did when he was alive.
The history of the Society since 1925 has, on the whole, not been a happy one. The growing disagreements between members of the Vorstand after Steiner’s death, the mass expulsion of members in 1935, and a few disgraceful accommodations with Nazism in Germany and Fascism in Italy in the period leading up to the Second World War, were indicators of a movement that had lost its way. Perhaps, after all this, the spiritual world concluded that the Anthroposophical Society was no longer a suitable vehicle within which serious work could be done. The fact that the GAS has just spent part of its 2018 AGM in rescinding the expulsion of Ita Wegman and Elisabeth Vreede 83 years after the event points to a certain frivolity in their approach to what is needed today, however justified it may be to make a belated acknowledgement of that disastrous misstep.
So to whom is the Anthroposophical Society now speaking? It seems unlikely that it can now be a significant change-maker in the world, except inasmuch as individual anthroposophists can find common cause with people and organisations of goodwill throughout the world. It is the work of Rudolf Steiner that can still connect us to other people, because so much of what he brought through speaks powerfully to the dilemmas of today. Even the most dedicated materialists and skeptics are feeling the hugely pervasive disquiet seething in the collective consciousness of humanity at this time, as the true scale of environmental vandalism, economic disparity and social injustice reaches breaking point. At these times, the wounding power of ridicule from the skeptics towards the notion that humans are in reality spiritual beings currently in physical incarnation just loses its potency; to quote Susan Raven (author of the book Nature Spirits: the Remembrance): “If you hold another human being’s eye and speak your truth with the indefinable power that infuses a human voice when it sounds out from a point of profound and undeniable experience – there will be movement. And if the listener then goes on to hear the same, or similar, information from another two sources, the shell of denial might just begin to crack – be it ever so slightly!”
To people who are now open to treading a spiritual path, to come across the work of Rudolf Steiner, a very great initiate and master seer, can be life-changing. It is Rudolf Steiner whose extraordinary life and astonishing body of work can reach out to these people, not the society with its headquarters in Switzerland and a name that is difficult to pronounce. Is it not now time to acknowledge this reality? Is now the moment, in other words, to change the name of the Society, at least in English-speaking countries, to something like the “Rudolf Steiner Association”?
Such a move would not be without its dangers. The late Rudi Lissau said that: “If we look at every statement Steiner made as a message of the spiritual world, we endow Steiner with greater authority than that assumed by the Roman Pope. It is essential to bear in mind that certain ideas of his have their root in the general climate of the time and sometimes stem from definite people. Like any other human being Steiner was, to a certain degree, shaped by his environment and, like any other human being, had certain prejudices. He had not studied everything and, as he repeatedly stated, made many of his statements to particular groups of people in unique situations never to be repeated. If we fail to remember this, we turn a real man into an idol. One can, if one is so inclined, worship an idol. A real man with all his faults and weaknesses can be loved and there are few people more worthy of love than Steiner.”
So we should remember that Steiner was a real man who also had initiate consciousness, someone who was able to bring forward huge amounts of information for us to seek to understand, to work with, to reject or accept according to our inner being, or to take forward into further research, or to apply in practical situations. Let us put no obstacle, name or otherwise, between Rudolf Steiner and those people who need to meet him.