Food for thought

In March 2009, Professor John Beddington, who was at that time the chief scientific adviser to the UK government, forecast a “perfect storm” of food, energy and water shortages by the year 2030. Jonathon Porritt, the then chairman of the UK’s Sustainable Development Commission, was less optimistic than Beddington and predicted that 2020 was more likely. At the time of writing, we are now more than halfway through 2017 so the predicted crunch point is between three and thirteen years away.

Of course, these warnings are only useful if they are able to nudge governments and people into taking co-ordinated action prior to the crunch. Once the crunch point has arrived, no more preparation is possible – crisis prevention then has to give way to crisis management. So far, unless plans are being made in secret in Whitehall, there has been a deafening silence from government. I see no preparation and no awareness – but plenty of signs of crisis.

These signs include climate change and the increasing frequency of extreme weather events; a shrinking land area as the seas rise; and heat, drought and flooding affecting the land that remains. As the oceans acidify, they will less and less be able to provide food or remove carbon. Keystone species such as bees and plankton will continue to die off; and the depletion of the humus and mineral content of our farmland soils will go so far that we will no longer be able to rely on future harvests.

In the face of accelerating disasters such as these, we could begin to see events moving out of the grasp of governments; and if, as seems likely, we are unable to make enough changes to avert the worst environmental effects, this will be followed by economic and social fracture, the breakdown of law and order and large movements of refugees from those parts of the world devastated by climate change and war. Hand in hand with this, much of the infrastructure on which we rely to provide food, water and energy will start to fall apart. Professional skills, such as those needed to prevent disasters in the privatised nuclear industry, may no longer be available.

The ways in which the descent to chaos could develop are so varied that governments seem paralysed by the sheer scale of the problems. As the crisis bites, so will the scale of unemployment; and this in turn will mean that government tax revenues become so reduced that they can no longer support the unemployed, or pay for fundamentals such as education, health and law and order. In the UK, we are seeing early signs of this in the way the government is changing the rules about the state pension, meaning that people will now have to work until they are 68 before they can expect to receive it. As the crisis deepens, the rest of us will also be finding it harder and harder to pay our way, and necessities such as food and even water supplies could be hard to get. The social contract between government and people will eventually be broken.

In an uncomfortable kind of way, all of this may be good news. Communities will have to find out how to provide such things for themselves, or do without. All of us will need to re-discover our locality and local skills, and build a new culture of community to take us through. The power of unfettered capitalism, which now seems so inescapable, may become as irrelevant tomorrow as the divine right of kings seems to us today. The shock of this descent will leave nothing in our lives unchanged. It is probable that we cannot now avoid it, but with determination and courage it can be managed, its worst effects averted, and it can be made survivable. It will be our species’ most difficult challenge ever, but also our greatest opportunity.

Turning now to one aspect of this rapidly approaching crisis, how can we secure our food and farming systems for the future? Conventional industrial agriculture is the short-sighted and short-lived product of abundant cheap energy, which has made it possible for a small number of farmers and landowners and industrial food processors to operate on a very large scale, using industrially-produced fertilisers and pesticides, while also requiring the elimination of natural ecosystems which get in the way. It has brought the whole supply chain, from seed production to supermarket checkout, under the control of a few very large companies.

But glyphosate and genetically modified crops etc have led agri-biz into a technological trap: large-scale monoculture means that the crop is highly vulnerable to pests and diseases, since there is no local ecosystem to support predators or resistance. Agri-biz cannot now do without these chemicals, but continuing to use them brings many other problems, such as the steep decline in soil fertility, the absence of pollinating insects, or the introduction of neuro-toxins into our food. Could the bees be telling us something about the consequences for our own health?

What’s more, concentrating agriculture into just a few giant food production centres removes all our defences against the spread of catastrophic crop failures, as well as any security we may have against famine. The claim that centralised industrial agriculture is the only way of feeding large populations is about as scientific as a belief in the literal truth of the Bible, but rather more damaging. Nor will technological fixes help. Their only effect will be to put off for a time the inevitable consequences, so that the breaking point, when it comes, will be as devastating as possible.

So what options do we have? Where does true food security lie? My own sense is that we need to re-discover localism. Hundreds of small farms and CSA schemes, growing healthy and nutritious food for their local communities, is surely much more sustainable than relying on the toxic, glyphosate-drenched prairie monocultures of conventional industrial agri-business.

Patrick Holden, Chief Executive of the Sustainable Food Trust, said at a recent international conference in the USA:

“… at a time when governments are beginning to take action on pollution in transport, with plans for a ban on new diesel and petrol cars by 2040, food producers remain largely financially unaccountable for the terrible damage that current systems are inflicting on the environment and public health.

Mechanisms that could exist to allow future food pricing to be more honest include the introduction of ‘polluter pays’ taxes on chemical fertilisers and pesticides and the redirection of farm subsidies in such a way that producers whose systems of production sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide and improve public health are rewarded for these benefits.”

At the same conference, Tyler Norris of the Institute for Mental Health and Wellness, highlighted how the declining nutritional quality of food has an economic cost. In the US, nearly 18 cents of every dollar is spent on health care services.

Other hidden costs exposed by scientists and economists in the proceedings included:

  • the cost of nitrate and pesticide pollution of ground and river water from agro-chemicals, which in some areas of the US is so high that the water industry is struggling to provide drinking water within legal limits;
  • air pollution from CAFOs are shown to be increasing respiratory infections and other diseases in people living nearby; (a CAFO is a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation, defined by the United States Department of Agriculture, as an animal feeding operation —a farm in which animals are raised in confinement—that has over 1000 “animal units” confined for over 45 days a year)
  • the loss of biodiversity, including the decline of farmland birds and pollinating insects,
  • soil degradation and erosion from continuous monoculture crop production,
  • the human health costs to employees working in stressful conditions in food processing plants.

All these and other costs are ultimately paid for by taxpayers and society in hidden ways, which include general taxation, insurance, water charges and reduced quality of life. Cheap food comes at a high cost to all of us.

As it happens, Patrick Holden is a graduate of Emerson College at Forest Row in the UK, where I currently work. It was Emerson College which, in an astonishing act of public altruism, donated the land now farmed by Tablehurst Farm to St Anthony’s Trust, a local charity whose charitable objectives include the training of biodynamic farmers and growers. This has had the radical effect of removing the Tablehurst farm land from being a tradeable commodity, and allows the farmers to do their work without having huge amounts of mortgage debt around their necks. I also work at Tablehurst, and to my mind it is an inspiring example of a farming model which offers great hope for a sustainable and much happier future.

On behalf of John Swain, a film-maker in the States who is putting together a project around issues of farm ownership, community farms and access to land for young farmers, I recently interviewed several people who were involved with the early days of Tablehurst Farm and the transfer of the land from Emerson College to St Anthony’s Trust. You can hear these interviews, and/or read the transcripts, here. I hope you will enjoy listening to them, as well as finding some food for thought about the future of farming.

 

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Filed under Agriculture, Biodynamic farming, Climate change, Community, Farming, Localism

I have seen the future…

Lincoln Steffens is hardly a household name these days, though perhaps he should be. Born in 1866, which makes him a near-contemporary of Rudolf Steiner, he was a highly influential American journalist during the early years of the 20th century. He knew and interviewed most of the famous people of his time, and was a campaigning and muckraking journalist, whose investigations of corruption in Wall Street helped lead to the creation of the Federal Reserve System.

But Steffens had his blind spots, and the most egregious of these was his embrace of Lenin and the Soviet Union. It was Steffens who reported his first impressions of the Soviet Union with the notorious phrase, “I have seen the future, and it works.”

Lincoln Steffens

Lincoln Steffens (photo via New York Times)

The anthropopper has now come across the Lincoln Steffens de nos jours, and he is an historian called Yuval Noah Harari. He has written a book called Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow and it is my contention that Harari is doing for the coming incarnation of Ahriman what Steffens did for Lenin – in other words, in the term invented to describe people who blindly supported the likes of Lenin and Stalin while they committed atrocity after atrocity, he is a useful idiot.

Not that the world at large seems to regard Harari in this light – his book, first published in 2014, has become an international bestseller, endorsed by Barack Obama and considered by Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg as essential reading. All the most glittering prizes of contemporary fame have been showered on him – TED talks, public lectures, a dedicated YouTube channel, an online course as well as speeches to the futurologists at Google and the Singularity University in Silicon Valley.

Yuval_Noah_Harari_photo

Yuval Noah Harari (photo via Wikipedia)

In Harari’s book, you can see how in our current time the Ahrimanic and the Luciferic influences are working together to deceive human beings about their true nature and their true future. Humans, says Harari, have done great things already and unimaginably greater things are going to be done. Our lifespan, for example, the Biblical three score years and ten, will double to one hundred and fifty as we humans become masters of our own fate and shapers of the natural circumstances of our own existence. The gods once made sport of us, but the future will “upgrade humans into gods, and turn Homo sapiens into Homo deus.”

According to Harari, scientific and technological innovations issuing from the minds of a visionary technical elite will be writing the story of our future: “History is often shaped by small groups of forward-looking innovators rather than by the backward-looking masses.” (You can see how this might appeal to people like Gates and Zuckerberg.) If humankind of the future is still assailed by new strains of disease or with viruses resistant to all antibiotics, it won’t be because of inadequate science and research, but because of a failure of political will or inadequate resources.

So medicine, if the political classes allow it to get on with its job, is part of the good news. Climate change, environmental collapse and mass extinctions are, of course, part of the bad news; but “we could lessen the danger by slowing the pace of progress and growth”, and as for nuclear weapons, they have compelled the superpowers “to find alternative and peaceful ways to resolve conflicts.” Harari’s vision for the future, however, is not species annihilation but species transformation through science and technology. We will become new kinds of human beings as our bodies, minds and relationships with the environment and with mechanical devices become altered in fundamental ways.

Harari’s prediction is that we human beings will become more god-like as we become more machine-like and as the capacity of machines becomes more god-like. We are nothing special in the animal kingdom, we have no immortal soul, there is no essential human self and our thoughts and emotions are the product of electrochemical impulses which can in the future be modelled by algorithms. Our future lies in the hands of technical experts – in biotechnology, artificial intelligence, cognitive and computer science. New tools will become parts of our bodies. We will have bionic hands, feet and eyes, while nanorobots will move through our bloodstream looking out for disease and repairing the damage of age and injury. We shall have wearable and implanted devices to expand our senses and alter our moods, while biological tools will enter our cells, remodel our genes and give us new and better flesh, blood and neurons.

Harari says it is a fact that the “last days of Homo sapiens are fast approaching, and that our species will be replaced “by completely different beings who possess not only different physiques, but also very different cognitive and emotional worlds.” Ordinary human beings will become surplus to requirements, as wars will be waged by drones and work will be done by robots: “Some economists predict that sooner or later, unenhanced humans will be completely useless.” Algorithms embedded in silicon and metal will replace algorithms embedded in flesh, which as Harari points out, is what biology and computer science tells us is all we really are anyway. Things have apparently gone so far that some in Silicon Valley already refer to human beings as “meat puppets.”

Things are going still further: Harari says that human beings will cease to be free agents, that their autonomy will be taken over by algorithms – written at first by human beings but ultimately by algorithm-writing machines. As this happens, liberal society will disintegrate as we will no longer be able to sustain belief in the uniqueness of the free human being as the basis of liberal social order. “We – or our heirs – will probably require a brand new package of religious beliefs and political institutions.”

This new religion will be called Dataism. It will be accompanied by the dissolution of the boundaries between animals, machines and social systems, all of which will be seen as algorithmic information processing systems. The concepts of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ will be replaced by the primacy of the free flow of information. The “cosmic data-processing system” will be what God once was: “It will be everywhere and will control everything, and humans are destined to merge into it.”

One can see how all of this appeals very much to the would-be masters of the universe, such as Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Bill Gates (Microsoft), Tim Cook (Apple) and all those who believe that human beings are just commodities to be manipulated by those who control the algorithms. It reinforces their sense that they have got it right and that they are the leaders of evolution.

I think enough has now been said to indicate that Harari is completely under the influence of Ahriman and Lucifer. What is disturbing is that his vision is so obviously already well under way, as we move inexorably towards the time of the incarnation of Ahriman. I’ve written before about Rudolf Steiner’s warnings concerning the forthcoming unique incarnation of Ahriman, of which Harari’s book is an obvious precursor:

“Just as there was an incarnation of Lucifer in the flesh and an incarnation of Christ in the flesh, so, before only a part of the third millennium of the post-Christian era has elapsed, there will be, in the West, an actual incarnation of Ahriman: Ahriman in the flesh. Humanity on earth cannot escape this incarnation of Ahriman. It will come inevitably. But what matters is that people shall find the right vantage point from which to confront it.”

Steiner’s advice was that, although we cannot avoid this incarnation, the best thing we can do is to wake up from our complacent materialistic sleep and observe what is happening all around us:

“Whenever preparation is being made for incarnations of this character, we must be alert to certain indicative trends in evolution. A being like Ahriman, who will incarnate in the West in time to come, prepares for this incarnation in advance. With a view to his incarnation on the earth, Ahriman guides certain forces in evolution in such a way that they may be of the greatest possible advantage to him. And evil would result were people to live on in a state of drowsy unawareness, unable to recognise certain phenomena in life as preparations for Ahriman’s incarnation in the flesh. The right stand can be taken only by recognising in one or another series of events the preparation that is being made by Ahriman for his earthly existence. And the time has now come for individual human beings to know what tendencies and events around them are machinations of Ahriman, helping him to prepare for his approaching incarnation.

It would undoubtedly be of the greatest benefit to Ahriman if he could succeed in preventing the vast majority of people from perceiving what would make for their true well-being, if the vast majority of people were to regard these preparations for the Ahriman incarnation as progressive and good for evolution. If Ahriman were able to slink into a humanity unaware of his coming, that would gladden him most of all. It is for this reason that the occurrences and trends in which Ahriman is working for his future incarnation must be brought to light.”

I suppose we owe a debt of gratitude to Harari for showing so clearly what the incarnation of Ahriman will have in store for us, unless we wake up to what is happening and start to work towards some different outcomes. Outcomes are not necessarily independent of the prediction; and if enough people believe that certain things can happen or will happen, they may devote resources and technology to making them happen. So let us try to focus on what the real, intended future for human beings ought to be.

In doing this, we shouldn’t underestimate the difficulty of changing course, nor should we ignore the role of our present model of capitalism, which will prevent us from hitting the brakes and steering the car away from Harari’s predicted future. We already have a situation in which Jeff Bezos is ‘worth’ $85 billion, whereas an Amazon delivery driver is just a disposable part in a machine, a component to be thrown away without a moment’s thought as soon as he can’t perform to the standards demanded by the algorithm.

Let us leave the final word to Rudolf Steiner:

“To the extent to which people can be roused into conducting their affairs not for material ends alone and into regarding a free and independent spiritual life, equally with economic life, as an integral part of the social organism — to that same extent Ahriman’s incarnation will be awaited with an attitude worthy of humanity.”

 

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What next after capitalism?

After the results of the UK election, held on 8th June, one thing became very clear: young people have started to lose faith in the way our present society runs, particularly in our current model of capitalism. The situation is even more stark in the USA; Naomi Klein has analysed it brilliantly here.

It is not hard to understand some of the economic pressures which have led young people to conclude that capitalism is not working for them. A study by the Resolution Foundation last year found that people born between 1981 and 1985 are earning £40 a week less in today’s terms than were, at the same age, people born a decade earlier – making the current under-35s the first generation since the industrial revolution to suffer such a reversal. Meanwhile, the cost of housing has gone beyond their reach. Over the past five years, according to the Nationwide Building Society, the rate of home-ownership among 30-34 year olds has plunged from 49.3 per cent to 43.1 per cent – while older people have enjoyed higher rates of home-ownership.

Moreover, high rents have prevented many young people from putting aside any kind of savings. If they cannot win a stake in the capitalist system, in spite of working hard, why should they support it?  Add to that some of the many other issues that Theresa May’s government is either supporting or which are resulting from its policies, eg fracking, foodbanks, stealth privatisation of the NHS and other public services, student tuition fees, constant austerity for ordinary people but not the rich, etc., and it is no wonder that so many young people voted in such numbers for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.

For many older people, capitalism was associated with freedom. But there is little reason today for young people to feel the same way, when they are confronted on a daily basis by large, tax-dodging corporations and bankers who wrecked the economy, who escaped without punishment and yet who carried on skimming off vast bonuses. What they see instead are the failures of Conservative industrial policy, such as over-priced trains run by private companies, which have ruthlessly exploited the private monopolies granted to them, in what was surely the most flawed of all the privatisations.

It will not be possible for the Conservatives to continue to preach the benefits of the free market if it is patently not working in favour of an entire generation. By the next election the current generation of under-35s will comprise nearly half the population. If they have a sense that the economic system is rigged against them, they will revolt against it – and so they should.

But it’s even worse than just a system rigged against the young; those of you who are regular readers of this blog may be aware that from time-to-time, I’ve expressed grave doubts as to whether this planet and all the species living on it will be able to survive the consequences of our present system of economics.

Our current model of capitalism, with its emphasis on constant growth and its elevation of money to something which trumps every other argument, is leading us inevitably towards what has been called the Sixth Great Extinction in the history of our planet. The Holocene epoch, the past 12,000 years of stable climate in which agriculture, settled communities, and great civilisations first appeared, has come to an end, and a new epoch has begun. The term “Anthropocene” was coined in the 1970s to describe this new epoch, in which we are seeing significant human impact on the Earth’s geology and ecosystems.

Another and in some ways better term for the present epoch has been coined even more recently by those who want to focus attention on the role of capitalism in bringing us to this crisis in Earth’s existence, and this is the “Capitalocene”.  We are living in a new and dangerous epoch in Earth history, as identified in overwhelming detail by scientists. It is characterised by the violation of critical planetary boundaries, the unprecedented disruption of our planet’s life-support systems with potentially catastrophic results, including climate chaos, mass extinctions, acidified oceans, poisoned rivers, rising sea levels, over-population and more.

Whatever one calls this new era, it’s clear that most people (with the possible exception of Donald Trump and those who share his attitudes) are prepared to accept that the Earth System as a whole is experiencing unprecedented negative changes caused by recent human action (from the time of the Industrial Revolution onwards). The concept that perpetual, constant, infinite growth without limits is leading us directly to disaster is one that is probably accepted by most sane people these days. The question is: what can be done about it? Who is going to tell voters in a democracy that there are limits to growth? Who will tell a Premier League footballer or a rock star that there should be a limit to the number of Ferraris they own? More to the point, is there any politician with the courage to say to people like me that two cars per family is quite enough?

No doubt most people can see the connection between unlimited numbers of consumer goods and ecological destruction – but which of us is prepared to accept that the limits to growth have to start with you and me?

Rudolf Steiner identified the economic, social and cultural aspects of the problem a century ago and put forward Threefolding as an alternative to our headlong pursuit of disaster. These ideas still need to be brought to the world’s attention but my assumption is that there will not be any cut-through to political and public notice by anthroposophical concepts alone, unless they are also accompanied by additional ideas and solutions propounded by other people of goodwill. Sadly, anthroposophy is too strange a word, its ideas are too remote from common attitudes today, and its historical baggage is too cumbersome to enable it to make the necessary difference on its own.

That is why I am proposing, along with a few colleagues, to organise a conference at Emerson College in 2019 to look for a new story, a new narrative about what has to pass away, and what has to come into being, if we are to survive as a species on our beautiful blue planet – and I invite you to help “crowdthink” this conference into a form that will enable it to be most useful. Here are a few ideas to get us started, and I would be most grateful for your own input, such as suggestions for speakers, themes, alternative ways forward and who should be invited to attend and participate. Please send in your thoughts and ideas via the Comment button below.

Conference working title: What next after capitalism?

Conference venue: Emerson College, Forest Row, East Sussex, UK

Proposed date: Around Easter 2019

Basic premise: The world is hurtling towards disaster because of the way we treat the planet and people and this is a direct result of our current economic systems. We are not living with love for one another and the world. Does the conference accept/agree with this? Does the conference accept/agree the concept that the problem is our present model of capitalism?

Duration: 3 days

Day 1: THEME – What’s broken?

Establishing what’s not working and why, using examples from around the world. 20-minute “Ted type” talks on identifying what is broken.

Day 2: THEME – Alternatives

Looking at alternatives from around the world – examples of success and failures

Day 3: THEME – Call to Action

Leaving with determination, purpose and a clear set of realistic actions for each of the 3 themes.

Underlying structure: 3-fold. Cross-cutting themes throughout conference, including Economic, Cultural and Rights spheres, and taking in topics such as the impact of our present model of capitalism on the environment, global economy, banking, agriculture, medicine, company structures, shareholder system, developing countries and relations between people, etc

Our ideal will be to find a backer who will fully fund the conference so that attendance can be by invitation only. Our aim will be to put together a stellar group of keynote speakers and leading thinkers, and to invite top civil servants, social entrepreneurs, pioneers who are already doing the alternatives, academics, influencers and opinion-formers to attend.

I would be very grateful to receive via the Comments below your own thoughts, ideas and suggestions to develop this proposal – please suggest speakers, topics and a structure for each day of the conference. It would be a magnificent achievement if this conference could be a result of “crowdthinking” in action!

 

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Filed under Anthroposophy, Capitalism, Emerson College UK

Childish things

“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” (1 Corinthians 13:11, King James Version)

The writer C S Lewis, in his On Three Ways of Writing for Children, extended this thought of St Paul’s a little further:

“When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”

The anthropopper finds that, as he gets older, he thinks more and more often of his childhood. Just lately, I have been remembering the first class in my first school, when I was 4 years old; and in particular I remember two children’s hymns that we sang then, perhaps because I find them to be as meaningful for me now as an adult as they were when I was a little boy.

Our class teacher was Miss Butterworth, whom I adored and intended to marry when I was a grown-up. I can still recall my bitter disappointment when the headmaster told us she had married a Frenchman and become Mrs Gillette.

Firs Farm v3

Class 1, Firs Farm Primary School, London N13 in 1955. Miss Butterworth is on the right and Miss Atkins on the left. The anthropopper is 4th from the left in the middle row.

Outside the house, the sun is shining and on the lawn the daisies and buttercups are strewn in profusion, like silver and gold stars among a grassy firmament. Inside, as I gaze out of the window at the garden, I can also see the classroom assistant, Miss Atkins, who is playing the piano, while Miss Butterworth teaches us the words:

Daisies are our silver,

Buttercups our gold;

This is all the treasure

We can have or hold.

 

Raindrops are our diamonds

And the morning dew;

While for shining sapphires

We’ve the speedwell blue.

More than sixty years later, I remember it all clearly, and sing the words to myself, conscious of moist eyes. You can hear the music, a hymn tune called Glenfinlas by K G Finlay (1882 – 1974), played on a church organ, here.

The hymnbook we used at my first school was called Songs of Praise, and I have wanted for some time to own a copy; so I was delighted on a visit to St David’s Cathedral in Wales to find it, including the music, on sale in the cathedral shop. From the list of credits, it is clear that the people behind Songs of Praise were very distinguished: the Words Editor was the Revd Canon Percy Dearmer (1867 – 1936), an ecumenist, socialist and advocate for the public ministry of women; while the Music Editors were the composers Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872 – 1958) and Martin Shaw (1875 – 1958).

percy dearmer

The Revd. Canon Percy Dearmer

Christopher Howse, writing in the Daily Telegraph, said that “It was brave of Dearmer to recruit the genius of Ralph Vaughan Williams … since the composer was formally an atheist, though he heard even in an errand boy’s careless whistling ‘nothing else than an attempt to reach into the infinite’ ”.

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Ralph Vaughan Williams in the 1920s (photo by E A Hoppe)

It was Martin Shaw who, during his work on Songs of Praise, came upon the traditional Gaelic hymn-tune Bunessan while researching in the British Library and then used it to set the words of Morning is Broken, which he had commissioned specially from his old friend Eleanor Farjeon. This tune and Farjeon’s words became a No. 1 hit for Cat Stevens in 1972.

 

geoffrey_and_martin_shaw

Brothers and composers – Geoffrey and Martin Shaw

Dearmer, Vaughan Williams and Martin Shaw brought some of the best of their contemporaries into the hymnal project, including composers such as: Arnold Bax, Gustav Holst, Herbert Howells, John Ireland, Arthur Somervell and Herbert Sumsion; and writers including : Laurence Binyon, Robert Bridges, G K Chesterton, Edmund Gosse, Laurence Housman, Rudyard Kipling, John Masefield. They also commissioned many new hymns using verses from various great writers such as: Matthew Arnold, John Bunyan, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Donne, Goethe, Robert Herrick, John Milton, Christina Rossetti, Shakespeare, Tennyson, Walt Whitman and Wordsworth.

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Jan Struther

One of these contemporaries was Jan Struther, who wrote Daisies are our Silver and several other hymns that were included in the revised 1931 version of Songs of Praise. Her literary name was a compression of her real name, Joyce Anstruther. Joyce had an interesting, rather tragic life and under her married name of Mrs Maxtone Graham was a member of the special committee formed in 1929 to support the work of enlarging the first version of Songs of Praise. During the 1939/45 war, she had much success (that later came to haunt her), with her creation of the character Mrs Miniver, which became a film of that name starring Greer Garson. The film depicted the everyday life and preoccupations of a middle class British family in wartime and was credited with helping to change public opinion in the USA about joining Britain to fight in the Second World War.

Lizette_Woodworth_Reese

Lizette Woodworth Reese

Martin Shaw’s brother, Geoffrey, was also a composer; and it was Geoffrey Shaw (1879 – 1943) who wrote the music to words by the 19th century American poet Lizette Woodworth Reese (1856 – 1935), Glad that I live am I, which is the second hymn I remember learning with Miss Butterworth and Miss Atkins:

Glad that I live am I,

That the sky is blue;

Glad for the country lanes

And the fall of dew.

 

After the sun the rain,

After the rain the sun;

This is the way of life

Till the work be done.

 

All that we need to do,

Be we low or high,

Is to see that we grow

Nearer the sky.

Such simple words are suitable for a child’s understanding, but also contain sufficient layers and compression of meaning to satisfy an adult’s need for truth. And who is to say that this is not good poetry? I am glad that it still seems to be meaningful for teachers and pupils today: you can hear Oaklands School in Loughton, Essex, singing it on YouTube at their school prizegiving in 2015.

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The UK’s Brexit and anti-globalisation general election

Apart from his efforts to bring about the Threefold Social Order after the First World War, Rudolf Steiner stayed away from involvement with politics. Indeed, he went so far as to say: “The Anthroposophical Society is averse to any kind of sectarian tendency. Politics it does not consider to be among its tasks.”  This is a line that many anthroposophists also take, for understandable reasons.

Despite this, I am going to write here about politics, because the forthcoming “snap” British general election, called by the British prime minister Theresa May to be held on June 8th 2017, is of such a momentous nature, with implications not just for the UK but also for many other countries around the world, that it surely deserves a wider anthroposophical perspective.

We have also just had the result of the presidential election in France, which was won decisively by Emmanuel Macron, leader of a new political party, En Marche! (On the Move!), whose name by a strange coincidence bears the same initials as his own. His defeated opponent, Marine Le Pen of the far-right Front National party, had one of the most devastating lines in their televised debate, when she said: “France is going to be led by a woman, either me or Frau Merkel” but her aggressive, hectoring style led most observers to conclude that she had lost the arguments.

(As an interesting aside, a respected clairvoyant suggested to me that Emmanuel Macron is an aspect of Napoleon Bonaparte, who has reincarnated to do what he can to compensate for all the death and destruction he caused during his life as Emperor of France. A fanciful notion, perhaps, but put pictures of Macron and Bonaparte side by side and there is a distinct resemblance. I shall watch with great interest how Macron approaches his task of seeking to unite a very divided nation.)

Macron Bonaparte

Macron Bonaparte (image via the blog Conseil dans l’Espérance du Roi)

The Eurozone economic crisis, combined with the cultural and social impact of its open borders policy, has led to the rise of far-right parties not just in France but in many EU nations: the very thing which defenders of the EU say it exists to counter. But discontent with the EU is only one factor; another important one, which applies much more widely than just within Europe, is that the bankers and money-men collectively bankrupted us a decade ago – and got away with it. The resulting surge of rage across the Western world unleashed the Brexit vote in the UK; it smashed the established French party system, so that neither of the main parties there was any longer even in contention for the presidency; and in the USA it carried Donald Trump all the way to the White House. The tide in favour of national self-determination and anti-globalisation appears to be running high in many countries right now.

As regular readers of this blog will know, I voted to leave the European Union during the referendum held on June 23rd 2016, and I gave my reasons here and here. Most anthroposophists I know took a different line, and voted to remain. There has been a lively discussion about all of this in recent issues of the Anthroposophical Society in Great Britain’s Newsletter. I don’t intend to repeat the arguments I made last year, but will add here a few further observations.

First of all, a glance back at the history of Britain and the European project, together with a question: why was it that Conservative and Labour statesmen such as Winston Churchill, Clement Attlee and Ernest Bevin, as well as the great European Charles de Gaulle, were all against the idea of Britain joining what was to become the European Union? Was it because they all understood what the European project was about and realised that Britain was not a natural part of it?

Churchill de Gaulle

Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle

The case made by those in favour of joining the European Economic Community (such as Harold Macmillan, prime minister from 1957 to 1963) was that Britain’s relative economic and actual geopolitical decline after the Second World War left joining the rest of Europe as the only viable alternative. However, after the war and in the early 1950s, most British politicians were unable to see just how difficult Britain’s position had become; or perhaps some of them could see it, but weren’t prepared to tell the British people that our imperial pretensions could no longer be sustained. It was the Suez War of 1956 that revealed just how far Britain’s economy had weakened, and how dependent it had become on the USA.

Britain after the Second World War and into the 1950s resisted the idea of joining in any moves towards European integration. True, Churchill had publicly supported the idea of a United States of Europe, notably when he made the keynote speech at the Hague Congress that created the Council of Europe in 1948; though whether he ever envisaged Britain being part of any such union is very doubtful. Certainly, he was far less sympathetic to the idea of union by the time he had returned to power in 1951. Nor was the post-war Labour government in favour of any moves towards union that might cede sovereignty in any form. In May 1950 foreign secretary Bevin said that because of links with the USA and the Commonwealth, Britain was “different in character from other European nations and fundamentally incapable of wholehearted integration with them.” In any case, measures towards political union of any kind aroused him to vigorous rejection. ‘I don’t like it. I don’t like it,’ he famously said of the idea of the Council of Europe: ‘When you open that Pandora’s Box you’ll find it’s full of Trojan horses.’

Bevin and Attlee

Ernest Bevin and Clement Attlee

Most Conservative politicians agreed with him. So Britain failed to engage in the creation of the EEC in the Treaty of Rome of 1957, and then later tried but failed to remedy what had come to be seen as a mistake. For Charles de Gaulle had never forgotten that Churchill had once told him that “if we had to choose between France and the US, Britain would always choose the latter.” So when Britain finally tried to join the EEC, first in 1963 and then again in 1967, de Gaulle vetoed our applications. Giving his reasons in 1963 for saying “Non”, he commented: “England in effect is insular, she is maritime, she is linked through her interactions, her markets and her supply lines to the most diverse and often the most distant countries; she pursues essentially industrial and commercial activities, and only slight agricultural ones. She has, in all her doings, very marked and very original habits and traditions.”

De Gaulle also believed that Britain would represent American interests: it would be the US’s Trojan horse in the EEC. He had concluded that Britain was not committed to the goals of the EEC because, having withdrawn in 1955 from the original talks that led to the creation of the EEC, Britain had then proceeded to establish its own rival customs union (EFTA – the European Free Trade Association). In addition, he found the British both arrogant and self-important. Was de Gaulle wrong about any of this? I don’t think so.

This is all ancient and unfortunate history, some might say. Eventually, in 1973, Britain managed to join the EEC – but only after de Gaulle had left office. Nearly half a century later, we’re all Europeans and global citizens now, drinking our fairtrade coffee while we wait for our flight to some agreeable holiday destination. We like the idea of being able to move to any EU country for work, and in any case, without all those helpful Eastern Europeans coming to the UK, who will look after the elderly in our care homes or serve us our skinny latte?

Despite such compelling arguments, I voted to leave on June 23rd 2016, and thus opened myself up to accusations of racism, fascism, betraying young people etc from furious Remainers. Even so, I was somewhat bemused to find myself characterised by Michael Eggert, a German blogger, as someone who was siding with “neo-nationalist reactionaries” and “reflecting the internal arguments of the UKIP supporters.” He tells his readers that if they go to the anthropopper blog they will know what to expect if they are “familiar with today’s neo-right and open-fascist conspiracy theories. The ingredients for anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism are the same, albeit with the pseudo-occult bluff arguments which so many believing Steiner supporters derive from his statements of 100 years ago.”

Actually, Michael, if I were pushed to define my political position, I would say that I lean towards anarcho-syndicalism with a deep green tinge. I thought I had taken great care in my Brexit essay to set out quite a distinct and principled position from a progressive standpoint – but perhaps the argument was too nuanced to pierce the hard shell of your cultural infallibility.

Leaving the uncomprehending Egoisten aside, I still remain baffled by the poor reasoning exhibited by so many Remainers; why is it, for example, that pro-EU people on the left or Green sides of the argument are so in favour of the European Union? What are they doing, these radicals who like to think of themselves as being in the forefront of the fight against globalisation, by fighting instead for an undemocratic, unaccountable trading bloc which is backed by the world’s banks, multinational corporations, financiers, and heads of governments? To listen to these Remainers, it’s clear that the decision to leave is being treated not as an opportunity to engage more fully with the wider world, nor a throwing-off of economic handcuffs or even simply as a change that must be accommodated after due democratic process, but rather as some kind of a national disaster.

Caroline Lucas

Caroline Lucas, the Green Party’s only MP and one half of the party leadership

And what is the Green Party thinking of, when it supports the EU? The EU cannot by any stretch of the imagination be described as green. Has Caroline Lucas forgotten the continent-wide destruction created by the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy – the wiping out of hedgerows, forests and wildlife, landscape features, small and family farms, and the promotion of industrial farming and agricultural free trade – which has arguably done more damage to the rural landscapes of Europe in 50 years than any other single instrument in the previous 500? This of course is now being extended to Romania, Poland, Hungary and the other newer members of the EU, where we will once again see the destruction of the peasantry, wildlife and diverse landscapes and the introduction of monocultures and the triumph of agri-business.

As for the Labour Party, I confess I don’t know what their attitude to the EU is today, nor do I understand what their position is on Brexit. What I do know is that they have failed to provide any kind of leadership, or to show that they have any clue about what caused the vote to leave. It seems that they have already given up on any prospect of winning this general election and are now manoeuvring behind the scenes for the leadership election that seems likely to follow a heavy general election defeat for their party.

The weakness of the left and the Greens means that this general election campaign will be more or less entirely about Brexit – and if I am right about most people’s motivations for voting to leave the EU, then in some ways it is also a manifestation of anti-globalisation, as we have seen elsewhere around the world.

The ruthlessness and will to power of the Conservatives have been much in evidence ever since the country voted to leave. We saw this first of all in the leadership contest to succeed David Cameron and then in everything Theresa May has done since becoming prime minister, especially in the way she has called this general election after denying on at least six occasions that there would be any election before 2020. The chances are that we are in for an extended period of Conservative rule. This has huge consequences, most obviously for Brexit and the UK’s future relations with Europe, but also for the futures of Labour’s leadership, public services, and the constitutional outlook for Scotland, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar.

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Theresa May and Jean-Claude Juncker (photo via the Daily Telegraph)

Mrs May has of course been fortunate in her enemies; nothing is better calculated to bring voters over to her side than leaked vindictive accounts from the aides of Jean-Claude Juncker of private dinners at Downing Street, or the threat of charging British taxpayers £100 billion because we were foolish enough to want to resign from the club. This is perhaps one reason why the Liberal Democrats were not able to make any kind of a breakthrough in the British local elections held on 4th May – as the one British political party which is unequivocally for Remain, they are now seen as supporting the vindictive and venal elite of the European project.

For the European Union has always been an elite project. Since it took shape in 1992, its architects have always been reticent about putting their project to the people. Referenda were rare, and if people voted the wrong way, as they did in Ireland or in Portugal, they were told to vote again until they gave the ‘right’ answer. The unspoken but clear aim has been to diminish, if not abolish, the democratic sovereignty of European nations, and to ‘pool’ that sovereignty in the interests of creating a giant, borderless free-trade zone. Of course, it was dressed up with talk of peace, equality and brotherhood, but it was primarily an economic project, as well as an attempt to keep Germany from becoming too dominant. (I wonder what happened to that?) People were not asked to vote on any of this, for a simple reason: it was clear they would say no. People remain stubbornly attached to their national identities, as we have seen in Britain, and as we see across the continent. This has been the EU’s fatal and quite deliberate flaw: it has never carried the people with it.

Were Rudolf Steiner alive today, he would not be giving his backing to the European Union as it has evolved. Why so many anthroposophists are unable to see this escapes me, because Steiner was quite clear about what should happen. He hoped for a threefold association of European nations that would themselves be threefold societies in which the cultural, legal-political and economic spheres would be clearly separated yet inter-related, his diagnosis being that Europe’s ills were caused by the interference of the three spheres with one another: business seeking to dominate the political state and the state seeking to dominate the cultural life (e.g. education). For the European level, Steiner looked forward to a common European economic life (which the EEC had started to provide), a common supranational European cultural life (which over the last fifty years has started to emerge in many ways) but to the maintenance of national values and traditions in the sphere of rights and law. It is this last point that the European Union, in its inept attempts to become a superstate, has completely failed to understand, and this is why Brexit became a necessity.

If Macron and others could begin to help the EU to reform itself along the lines indicated by Steiner, I would not hesitate to seek to rejoin such a community – and I think this would apply to many other people as well, not just in Britain but throughout Europe.

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Filed under Anthroposophy, Brexit, European Union, Rudolf Steiner

The supersensible powers of Rudolf Steiner

Long before writing this blog post, I recall reading an account by Walter Johannes Stein of a car journey he had taken with Steiner. They were going through a town when Steiner suddenly asked the driver to stop the car outside a bookshop they had just passed. Steiner went into the bookshop and re-emerged shortly with a book, which he showed to Stein with great satisfaction, saying that he had been wanting to obtain a copy of it for some time. “But how did you know it was in that bookshop?” asked Stein. “Oh, I saw it in the window,” said Steiner. Stein knew that this was quite impossible by any normal means, because it was just before dusk and the light was poor, and the car had in any case been moving too fast for anyone to have been able to pick out a title in the bookshop window. Unfortunately, I can’t now recall where I read about this and despite googling extensively, have not been able to re-locate it. Should any reader discover it, I would be grateful to know. But what this anecdote shows is that Rudolf Steiner had some amazing abilities that are not available to most of us in our present stages of development. What were these abilities, and what use did Steiner make of them?

steiner in spiritual world

Rudolf Steiner, photographed when in supersensible contact with the non-physical realm

Édouard Schuré (1841 – 1929) was a French philosopher, poet, playwright, novelist and music critic who had known Marie von Sivers (the future Frau Dr Steiner) since the year 1900, when she had contacted him with a request to translate some of his works into German. It was Marie von Sivers who introduced Schuré to Rudolf Steiner in 1906. According to the Wikipedia article on Schuré, “he was deeply impressed and thought of Steiner as an authentic ‘initiate’ in line with his The Great Initiates. After hearing Steiner lecture in Paris for the first time in 1906, Schuré in an ecstatic state ran home and wrote down the entirety of the lecture from memory. This first lecture, and the other lectures in the series (which Schuré wrote down) were published as Esoteric Cosmology. Subsequently, Steiner and von Sivers staged Schuré’s esoteric dramas at the Theosophical Congresses in Berlin and Munich. Schuré’s The Children of Lucifer, served as a precursor of Rudolf Steiner’s own esoteric dramas.”

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Edouard Schure

So Schuré was someone who knew Steiner well and had a very high regard for him. In 1910, he wrote some biographical notes on Steiner, which describe Steiner as an adept, a higher initiate, combining the powers of both mystic and occultist:

“The mystic…is one who seeks for truth, and the divine directly within himself, by a gradual detachment and a veritable birth of his higher soul. If he attains it after prolonged effort, he plunges into his own glowing centre. Then he immerses himself, and identifies himself with that ocean of life which is the primordial Force.

The occultist, on the other hand, discovers, studies, and contemplates this same Divine outpouring, given forth in diverse portions, endowed, with force, and multiplied to infinity in Nature and in Humanity. According to the profound saying of Paracelsus: he sees in all beings the letters of an alphabet, which, united in man, form the complete and conscious Word of life

The weapons of the mystic are concentration and inner vision; the weapons of the occultist are intuition and synthesis. Each corresponds to the other; they complete and presuppose each other.

These two human types are blended in the Adept, in the higher Initiate… Rudolf Steiner is both a mystic and an occultist. These two natures appear in him in perfect harmony. One could not say which of the two predominates over the other. In intermingling and blending, they have become one homogeneous force.”

There are numerous accounts, from people who knew him well, of Steiner’s supersensible abilities. From these accounts, it is clear that Steiner always waited for the conscious co-operation of the people with whom he worked; and that he never used his powers in an egotistical or selfish way, or to bring about a particular end. The freedom of other human beings was a fundamental and absolute principle underlying everything he did and said. I have chosen here a few examples, which have particularly appealed to me, to illustrate some of Steiner’s supersensible abilities but there are many others available.

The first example comes from Eleanor Merry (1873 – 1956), an English anthroposophist and artist who studied in Vienna and met Rudolf Steiner in 1922 after becoming interested in his teachings. Eleanor Merry was one of the organisers of Steiner’s 1924 summer school in Torquay, and this account comes from a meeting she had with Steiner in Paris in May of that year to discuss some of the details of the forthcoming conference.

Eleanor Merry

Eleanor Merry

“I told Dr Steiner about my efforts at painting according to his methods, and as I meant to exhibit some of my work at Torquay, I wished so much he had seen them beforehand. He replied: ‘I have seen your paintings’, and I said ‘No, Herr Doktor. You haven’t seen them; they are all in London.’

He said again: ‘I have seen them.’

I contradicted him, and for the third time he repeated that he had seen them, looking at me with his intense dark gaze.

Then for the first time I realised that he had indeed seen them, but not with earthly sight.

This incident gave me still greater confidence, because his ‘seeing’ had obviously not been the usual type of clairvoyance, but something entirely different. And there was something else. I told him that one day in London I had had great anxiety about my conduct of life, and my son and daughter, and had been nearly at my wits’ end and extremely unhappy. I was walking in the Park, thinking these anxious thoughts, when I heard distinctly a voice saying to me ‘Alles Licht kommt aus der Finsternis heraus.’ (All light comes out of the darkness.) It was so clear that I was startled, and I told him I had thought he was himself speaking. He looked kindly at me and said the simple words: ‘Warum nicht?’ (Why not?)

Never again could I doubt that in spirit he could be at any moment present with his pupils, no matter where they were.”

Anna Samweber (1884 – 1969) was an active co-worker in Berlin with Rudolf Steiner and Marie Steiner-von Sivers for several years. Her anecdotes and recollections were recorded by Jacob Streit during an intensive two days shortly before Anna’s death. They contribute a warm and intimate picture of Rudolf Steiner, the man, and his work.

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Anna Samweber

“Frau Dr Steiner owned a lovely diamond watch with her initials inscribed on the lid. It was broken, and I had to take it to a well-known watchmaker who lived a long way from the Motzstrasse (the house at 17 Motzstrasse in Berlin was where Rudolf and Marie Steiner lived from 1903 – 1913, and where the work of the Anthroposophical Society was carried on). It was late on a cold and foggy November evening when I made my way in the direction of Nollendorfplatz, where the building site for a subway was situated. I was walking along a long, wooden blank wall when suddenly two human shapes appeared from the dark and attacked me. I remembered that once Rudolf Steiner had told me that if ever I was in need I could call on him. So when these two attackers went for me, the one holding me from behind so that the other could rob me, I called inwardly and spontaneously: ‘Doctor, help me!’ At the same moment both fellows fell back like lightning and were gone.

When Rudolf Steiner came for breakfast the next morning he greeted me with the words ‘Good morning, Sam. What was the matter that you cried so loud last night?’ When I told him about my experience and he had listened quietly, he said simply: ‘But I did help you, didn’t I?’ “

Now here is an intriguing little story that will no doubt invite derision from some, but to my mind is highly significant. There is a book, Summer with the Leprechauns, by a Canadian author, Tanis Helliwell. In it, Helliwell describes how she went to Ireland and lived in a cottage with leprechauns (the race of elemental beings to which elves, leprechauns and fairies belong), one of whom became her particular friend and teacher about these beings. It’s an entertaining book to read and has been praised by Dorothy MacLean (one of the three founders of the Findhorn Community, well known for her work with the elemental kingdom).

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Tanis Helliwell (L) with Dorothy MacLean

In an interview, Helliwell was asked: What is the intention of elementals, what is their role, what do they mean for us in these ecologically very sensitive times and how do you see the writings of Rudolf Steiner on elementals?” Tanis Helliwell replied:

“In my book Summer with Leprechauns: The Authorized Edition I describe a new caste of elementals. About 100 years ago Rudolf Steiner (founder of anthroposophy) met with my leprechaun friend. He asked him and other elementals coming from all different castes: leprechauns, elves, goblins, gnomes, trolls and fairies to work in partnership with the humans to help create a healthier Earth and also to learn how to use free will and learn to be co-creators. My work assists him in the process. I travel around the world to speak to interest groups to work with elementals. Wherever I go be it the Maori of New Zealand, the Haida in Canada, the Mayan in Central America or people in Germany or Ireland the traditions of these people, all of them, believe in elementals. It is in their stories, in their legends and it is also in their present because so many people have encounters with elementals in their lives.”

I’m going to finish with a lengthy extract from an article, ‘The Initiate and the Teacher’, published in 1959 in The Golden Blade by the English artist, Gladys Mayer (1888 – 1980). She first came across Steiner’s work in 1915, when she read The Way of Initiation. In April 1922 she attended Steiner’s series of lectures on education at Stratford-on-Avon, then went to the Vienna Congress in June. The following year she visited Steiner in Dornach and decided to become a painter and art teacher at the Goetheanum.

“Mine was a strange, perhaps unique, experience of him. It is of the Initiate I must write, for I came to him late in his earthly mission, and I was not permitted to speak with him in outer life, until I had recognised him, supersensibly, as my Teacher.

Shattering events in life brought me to Rudolf Steiner. I came, not for myself, but on behalf of others. I came with doubt in my heart concerning him, yet the events which made me seek his help were beyond the competence of any but an Initiate to understand. I needed the advice which I knew he could give…”

Gladys Mayer 2

Gladys Mayer

Mayer then describes how she experienced what she called “the great karmic crisis of my life”:

“On not only one occasion but three times in the space of about six weeks, I had to face madness and impending tragedy in my own immediate environment. Twice in this period, on distinct occasions and amongst unrelated people, I had to intervene when a murder seemed imminent, and once to check an intended suicide. I began to ask myself: ‘Is the world about me going mad?’

But The Way of Initiation had already begun to bear fruits in spiritual experiences which guided me through events of terrifying responsibility, from day to day, and sometimes from moment to moment. I knew the spiritual worlds as reality, and Spiritual Beings as my aid. I received pictured instruction, through which healing was brought to the madness of one friend, and through which I was able to save the life of another. At length, I received the instruction to go to Rudolf Steiner for further advice…I met him frequently for something over two weeks: each time I met him he greeted me with a smile and a warm hand-clasp. Each time I asked him, ‘May I come and speak with you?’ he put me off with the reply: ‘Frage mir nochmal (Not just yet).’ Friends in Dornach told me this did happen sometimes, and of course it had a reason…Meanwhile, my spiritual instruction was going on, but it had developed a new phase.

Every night I awoke about two hours after midnight, and was aware of a continuous experience. At first it was a Star, very distant, that was shining on me: then it was gradually coming nearer, and at length it was a man with a lamp who stood by my bed. By the light of the lamp I was aware of another, greater figure, and from this other one, though I could not see him clearly, came words instructing me in the spiritual understanding of what was going on around me. I was shown, unexpectedly, the concealed suffering in the heart of a nearby friend: it was as though I were lifted up by the unseen Teacher to learn to know, through the Light of the Lamp, what was happening behind the veils of sense appearances.

At length, after about 14 days, I became anxious to know from whom I was receiving such teaching. I had become accustomed earlier to receiving instructions from an unseen Spiritual World. I had been made aware of the reality of spiritual discarnate Beings. But this Teacher was more concrete. I could see him unclearly towering above me, too great, it seemed, to be in any way connected with a human form. I could see the great form, but not yet the face of this Being.

At last, I could bear it no longer: I felt I must know more. I seized hold of him, as it were, with all my soul forces, and challenged him, saying: ‘Who are you?’ Then, as there came no answer, I asked wonderingly: ‘Are you the Christ?’ ‘Nicht so’ (Not so). Then, because these were German words, a further thought came to me. ‘Are you, can you be, he whom we know on earth as Rudolf Steiner?’

There was an instant stillness, and then the answer came softly, ‘Eben so’ (Even so).

I was still not satisfied. It seemed impossible for anyone so spiritually great to be also a human being. So I pressed further. ‘Then show me your face,’ I asked.

Immediately away to my left, where was situated the studio in which Rudolf Steiner lived and worked, I saw a tiny distant picture of his face and form resting with eyes closed, as it seemed to me, not in sleep, but in deep meditation.

I understood now why I had been kept waiting. I had doubted, and doubt came in through a false spiritual perception. It could be put right only by my seeing and recognising him in truth, in supersensible experience, as my Teacher. I came to him joyfully the next day, and asked confidently: ‘Now can I come to see you?’

I knew what the answer would be, and was not mistaken. When we talked together, I felt that I had known him for all time. I told him of all the terrible and wonderful experiences I had gone through, where earthly disasters had been averted through spiritual enlightenment, yet had eventually left me with responsibilities I felt were too great for me to bear alone; and how these responsibilities had eventually brought me to him. He listened quietly, and one had the impression he made his whole being receptive, soul to soul. Then he explained my experiences with the simple words: ‘Dies ist eine karmische Sache (This is a karmic matter).’ I felt enormous relief. Here, at last, is someone who understands, who takes all these astounding events calmly, and is competent to give advice. This is a matter of karma.”

Gladys Mayer’s account continues with her decision to sell up all she possessed so as to move from England to Dornach to be a painter at the Goetheanum, conscious that because of Steiner’s failing health there might not be much time left. As one of his many pupils, she continued to receive answers in meditation to her questions, particularly in relation to her painting and use of colour. She received these answers at night, when she would see a painting she had done during the day as muddy and grey. When she asked how the picture should have been, she saw it transformed into radiant transparent colour.

After Steiner’s death in 1925, Gladys Mayer was one of those people who was very upset by the dissensions and splits that occurred between factions in the Vorstand and in the wider General Anthroposophical Society: “Once in those first years, I heard his voice again, in a kind of despairing wonder: ‘Aber, mein lieben Freunde, was tun si alle?’ (‘But, my dear friends, what are you all doing?’)

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Rudolf Steiner on his deathbed

She concludes with an assessment of what Rudolf Steiner has brought to us all:

“As it seems to me, he has given certainty of the Spirit, guidance to the awakening faculties of spiritual seeing, and example of strength, courage and love to attempt the tasks of the New Age…But are we awake enough? The Teacher is there working with us, and through us, but he waits always for our conscious co-operation…Because humans are so very hungry for the certainty, the wisdom and the good, which this teaching, entrusted to Rudolf Steiner out of the divine worlds, can bring to our suffering Earth.”

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What was it like to hear Rudolf Steiner give a lecture?

I’ve sometimes wondered what it must have been like to have been a member of the audience at one of Rudolf Steiner’s lectures. “Sculpting in snow” is how Heinrich von Kleist described the art of acting in the theatre, and there is a similarly short term of life for the lecture; both the actor and the lecturer have the happiness of communication with the audience in moments of inspiration; but the lecture and the performance only exist as long as the creator is there, when he is present and speaking, when he is physically and spiritually alive.

If Steiner had lived another ten or twenty years, perhaps we would have had a recording or even some brief filmed glimpses of him – but he died in 1925, before the age of routine sound recordings, filmed newsreels etc.; so all we have are a few photographs, stenographic records of his words (“from shorthand reports unrevised by the lecturer”, as we are always told) and some recollections by people who heard him lecture.

It is from these written recollections of those who heard Steiner speak that we can gain some idea of the effect he had on his audiences. I’ve selected a few representative samples of these. Here, for instance, is Frederick William Zeylmans van Emmichoven (1893 – 1961), a Dutch psychiatrist and anthroposophist, who from 1923 until his death was chairman of the Dutch Anthroposophical Society. He recalls herehis first experience of hearing Steiner lecture; this was in Dornach in December 1920.

Steiner in schreinerei

A rare photo of Rudolf Steiner lecturing in the Schreinerei.

“On December 17, in the evening, I was sitting in the Schreinerei (the carpentry workshop adjacent to the Goetheanum, often used for lectures and performances) with my fiancée, who was studying eurythmy in Dornach. Happy at being together again, we were waiting for Rudolf Steiner’s lecture. Outside it was bitterly cold; Dornach lay covered in snow. Suddenly the blue curtain by the side of the stage lifted, and Rudolf Steiner went to the lecture-desk. At that moment I had the direct experience of recognition. The impression was so strong that a whole series of pictures simultaneously arose before me, pointing indeterminately to earlier situations – as if I were seeing him as my teacher through ages of time. It was the most memorable experience I have ever had in all my life. For some time I sat as though carried away and did not realise until later that his lecture had already begun. It was the first of the three lectures subsequently published under the title: The Bridge between the Spirituality of the Cosmos and Physical Man….

When I came to myself again and saw Rudolf Steiner standing at the lecture-desk, I had the strange feeling that for the first time I was looking at a Man! It is not at all easy to describe this impression. I had met many well-known and famous people, among them scholars and noted artists, and had always moved in circles where a great deal was going on – it had by no means been a humdrum existence. But now I realised: this is what Man is meant to be. I began to question myself: what is the explanation for this? You have encountered many human beings – what is it that is so significant here? I said to myself first of all that it was his whole bearing, the bearing of one who is like a tree that grows freely between earth and sky. This impression was connected not only with his straight, erect figure, but above all with the poise of the head – it seemed to hover between heaven and earth. The second feeling was profoundly moving: from this beautiful, powerful voice came forth words which lived on even after they had been spoken. And thirdly, there were the thoughts. I was obliged to confess to myself that I could not always understand them, but I realised that they were not there merely to be understood intellectually, but they had another, quite different, significance as well. Listening to professors, what always mattered was whether one understood everything they said. What mattered here was not whether I actually understood – it was something different. Today I could speak of ‘ideas’, of seed-bearing impulses and the like, but at that time I could not. I knew only that different impulses were at work here.”

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F.W.Zeylmans van Emmichoven (photo via the Ita Wegman Institut)

A different account comes from Assya Turgeniev (1890 – 1966), a Russian artist who was in close contact with Rudolf Steiner from 1912 until his death in 1925. She was married to the Russian writer, Andrei Belyi. When she and Belyi first came across the writings of Steiner in 1912, they were struggling with questions arising from some disturbing recent mystical experiences. The two books by Steiner they had read (Christianity as Mystical Fact and How to Attain Knowledge of Higher Worlds) had given them the sense that they could trust Steiner to provide answers to their questions. As soon as they had come to this conclusion, they rushed to catch a train from Brussels, where they had been staying, to Cologne, where Rudolf Steiner was lecturing. They first of all tried to meet Steiner but were rebuffed by a fierce lady, whom they came to know later as Marie von Sivers (the future Frau Dr Steiner). Instead, she invited them to attend a “members only” lecture later that day. They decided to attend this lecture, with very mixed feelings after their stern reception, particularly as neither of them spoke German. Turgeniev’s account2 continues:

“A remarkable audience assembled in a longish room decorated in blue. The majority were ladies, most of them not very young. Many were wearing peculiar shirtlike dresses with straight stoles over them, and others wore necklaces or chains with strange pendants. Even among those with some pretensions one could not discern any real style. The absence of make-up was very noticeable…

Half-bored, I watched the assembling audience. But what was that? Far off on the platform, partly covered by other people, something like a gleam of light showed. Then it disappeared and returned once more. Finally the outline of a head emerged. Dr Steiner! I knew that it was he, even though I could scarcely see him. Now he steps up onto the platform…an immense seriousness, a power which is beyond words spoke through those features…we sat there, gazed into the countenance of this person and listened to his words. That was the greatest and most important thing that had ever happened to me up till then, and something which went so deep into my very being that I could no more separate myself from it. One was immersed with such intensity into the voice with its resonance and rhythms, into the gestures and the expression of the face, that one accepted it all without question; one only knew that that in which one now lived and breathed was the original source of one’s being. Only when the lecture had come to an end did one ask oneself in amazement: “What has happened here? I did not understand one word of what was said and yet, in listening to it, I had such a deep experience, as though I had understood each word.”

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Assya Turgeniev and Andrei Belyi (photo via The Swetlana Geier Collection)

Friedrich Hiebel (1903-1989) was a personal student of Rudolf Steiner and a teacher at the first Waldorf school in Stuttgart. Later in life he became a professor of German Literature and in 1963, he became a member of the Vorstand in Dornach. He attended seventy of Rudolf Steiner’s lectures. The following account3 is a description of the first lecture he ever heard, at the congress in Stuttgart in 1921, on the topic of Agnosticism – the Destroyer of Genuine Human Nature (not available online):

“…all eyes turned to the tall figure of the man in black tails who slowly walked from backstage to the centre and then let his eyes wander over the audience.

Slowly, Rudolf Steiner walked over to the lectern. The way he walked revealed something of the balance between a soaring freedom from the body and the permeation of earth substance with will. Indeed, Rudolf Steiner’s gait was like that of a young man. His face was framed by black hair, which still showed no trace of gray at the age of sixty. Lines on the forehead and furrows around the chin and the corners of the mouth bore witness to the spiritual battles of the quest for knowledge, and in their dignity contrasted strangely with the youthful agility of his limbs…

None of the many carefully taken photographs…can fully convey the essence of his stature. For even the best pictures remain silent, and it was only in his word that the essence of his being was revealed…

Rudolf Steiner’s word now resounded in the great hall, speaking to the almost two thousand listeners. The contrast between the delicate features of his spiritualised physique and the deep resonance of his speech, resulting from breathing deeply with the diaphragm, was surprising. The deep tone of his speech rested in the larynx, vibrated in the chest, and was permeated with the warmth of the heart…

During the introductory sentences of his lecture, he seemed to keep his eyes almost completely closed, and his glance directed downwards. His posture was that of a man listening inwardly. He remained in this inwardly listening stance, gathering himself with all his will forces, for the duration of several long sentences. Then came a clearly discernible breakthrough: he opened his eyes, looked directly at the listeners, and began to reinforce his talk with a forceful and diverse language of gestures…

Here, a man stood before me who taught first how to comprehend consciously and in freedom with the head, then knew how to reach people from heart to heart, and finally was able to enter into the depths of the will…Those who were gripped by these lectures were lifted out of themselves, as it were. They received an inkling of the future image of the human being that was exemplified and fought for by the founder of anthroposophy.”

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Friedrich Hiebel (photo via Verlag Freies Geistesleben)

But what about those people who heard Steiner but did not have that sudden shock of recognition or the sense that something very important had just happened to them? Here is one such example4, this time from England. In 1922, Steiner visited England to lecture at a conference on ‘Drama and Education’, which was taking place in Stratford-on–Avon. The Times Educational Supplement carried a front-page article ‘from a correspondent’, headed ‘Anthroposophy’.

This unnamed correspondent, who refers to himself in the third person throughout the following extract, first of all described in a semi-ironical way the development of anthroposophy out of theosophy and its vast ambitions in all areas of knowledge, its philosophical approach to the occult and the building of the Goetheanum. He then described his responses after listening to Steiner’s lectures:

“It is interesting to note the effect of all this on a typical English public school and old university man who spent a strenuous fortnight in listening to lectures and demonstrations on education. His impression of the man Steiner is noteworthy. It appears that the philosopher has an imposing presence, and exercises a remarkable effect upon his audience. Our English schoolmaster found this personal influence exhausting. At first he sat immediately in front, under the speaker’s eye. But after a day or two he found the strain more than he could bear, and retreated to a seat in the background. With quite a laudable mixture of scepticism and fair-mindedness the schoolmaster gave the lecturer every chance, but remained unconvinced. He says that the lectures appeared to him to be nearly nonsense, but delivered in a fascinating way and marked by all the appearance of sturdy common sense. From any other person the hearer said he would not for an instant have tolerated the startling things set forth by the lecturer, but from him they seemed somehow or other to be at the same time entirely plausible, not to say reasonable.”

There you have a good example of solid, stolid British middle-class common sense and conservatism in the face of something strange and disturbing – yet almost in spite of himself, the correspondent noted the fascinating way in which the lecture was delivered and “the appearance of sturdy common sense”, which rendered the startling content somehow or other to be “entirely plausible, not to say reasonable.”

I will finish with some recollectionsby George Adams. He was a most remarkable man – an anthroposophist, mathematician, scientist and translator – who translated over one hundred of Steiner’s lectures, and translated for Steiner whenever he came to England. The arrangements he describes for these translations sound absolutely hair-raising: the lecture was divided into three parts by Steiner, who then spoke for 20-25 minutes, during which time Adams scribbled furiously, using his own system (he never learned shorthand) of invented signs, symbolic logic, abbreviations and capital letters. Steiner would then sit down, while Adams gave his translation. Then Steiner would give part 2 of the lecture, speaking for another 20 minutes, and so on. To the very end of his life, Steiner was unable to lecture in any language other than German.

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George Adams (photo via Forschungsstelle Kulturimpuls)

In a 1957 essay, Rudolf Steiner in England, George Adams recalled his impressions of Steiner:

“My impression … was, so to speak, of many Rudolf Steiners. There was the simple, friendly gentleman…Then there was Dr Steiner lecturing – deeply impressive and stern, vivid in characterisation, then often moving into anecdote, good-natured satire, rollicking fun and humour… there was Dr Steiner speaking in a more esoteric meeting … the initiate from timeless realms. Moreover, there was Dr Steiner as you might see him during a personal interview, when you told him of your life’s difficulties and ideals and he answered your questions – the deep, silent look in his eyes, the warm kindness and encouragement at some moments, and at others the absolute quiet, so that it was left entirely to you to come out with what you had to say, with seemingly no help from him, but silent waiting. And then again there was Dr Steiner as I saw him at the large public gatherings in Germany in 1921-22, often with audiences of two or three thousand, partly indifferent or merely curious or even hostile – the way he held them, the firmness and buoyancy of his carriage, the utter lack of compromise or any attempt to influence them. He rather put them through the mill, building up the ground of spiritual science or the stages of higher cognition with closely knit trains of thought, speaking for two hours or more and yet holding his audience completely.”

1 From ‘Rudolf Steiner in Holland’, an essay included in Rudolf Steiner, Recollections by some of his pupils. Translated from the German and published in a special issue of The Golden Blade edited by Arnold Freeman and Charles Waterman, in London, November 1957.

2 From Reminiscences of Rudolf Steiner and Work on the First Goetheanum by Assya Turgeniev. Translated from German by John and Margaret Wood. Published by Temple Lodge, 2003.

3 From Time of Decision with Rudolf Steiner by Friedrich Hiebel. Translated from the German by Maria St. Goar. Published by Anthroposophic Press, 1989.

4 Quoted on page 704 of Volume II (1922 – 1925) of Rudolf Steiner in Britain by Crispian Villeneuve. Published by Temple Lodge, 2004

5 From ‘Rudolf Steiner in England’, an essay included in Rudolf Steiner, Recollections by some of his pupils. Published in a special issue of The Golden Blade edited by Arnold Freeman and Charles Waterman, in London, November 1957.

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Filed under Anthroposophy, Lectures by Steiner, Rudolf Steiner