A tent in which to pass a summer’s night

‘Our highest truths are but half-truths;

Think not to settle down for ever in any truth.

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

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

When you first have an inkling of its insufficiency

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

Then weep not, but give thanks:

It is the Lord’s voice whispering,

“Take up thy bed and walk.” ‘

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 Comments

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

2 responses to “A tent in which to pass a summer’s night

  1. Steve Hale

    It was actually in the lectures, Human and Cosmic Thought, that Steiner
    said:

    “We must be in a position to go all round the world and accustom ourselves to the twelve different standpoints from which it can be contemplated. In terms of thought, all twelve standpoints are fully justifiable. For a thinker who can penetrate into the nature of thought, there is not one single conception of the world, but twelve that can be equally justified — so far justified as to permit of equally good reasons being thought out for each of them. There are twelve such justified conceptions of the world.”
    Lecture II, 21 January 1914

    Then, in the next lecture, ho goes on to say:

    “We had better arrange the twelve world-outlooks in the form of a circle, and quietly observe them. They are possible, and one must know them. They really stand in such a relation to one another that they form a mental copy of the Zodiac with which we are now so well acquainted. As the sun apparently passes through the Zodiac, and as other planets apparently do the same, so it is possible for the human soul to pass through a mental circle which embraces twelve world-pictures. Indeed, one can even bring the characteristics of these pictures into connection with the individual signs of the Zodiac, and this is in no wise arbitrary, for between the individual signs of the Zodiac and the Earth there really is a connection similar to that between the twelve world-outlooks and the human soul.” Ref: Human and Cosmic Thought, Lecture 3, 22 January 1914

    Cancer = Materialism

    Gemini = Mathematism

    Taurus = Rationalism

    Aries = Idealism

    Pisces = Psychism

    Aquarius = Pneumatism

    Capricorn = Spiritism

    Sagittarius = Monadism

    Scorpio = Dynamism

    Libra = Realism

    Virgo = Phenomenalism

    Leo = Sensationalism

    Like

  2. Thanks for this post, Jeremy!

    Unsurprisingly, perhaps, that essay you quote from (‘Egoism…’) has long been one of my favourite pieces by Steiner.

    Anyway, I thought I should clarify one thing regarding a previous question of mine. I won’t bother to go back and look at what I wrote then, but you write:

    ‘…needless to say, I am unfitted to pronounce on Rudolf Steiner’s understanding of God, for the insights of a great initiate like Steiner are beyond anything that I could truly grasp or usefully comment on.’

    Well, what I was thinking was not that you would determine, in some ultimate way, what Steiner ‘really’ thought. That would be impossible, of course (quite regardless of his potential status as a great initiate whose mind and insights ‘ordinary’ people presumably can’t grasp). We can have quite good clues, that’s pretty much all. But I do suppose that having engaged with his work for such a long time, you’ve made your own thoughts and interpretations of what he expressed on the topic. And, in fact, in this very post you do kind of offer your interpretation of Steiner’s teachings!

    Regards,
    -alicia

    Liked by 1 person

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