What a hornets’ nest one brings about one’s ears when trying to write honestly and rationally about Rudolf Steiner and some of the more difficult issues of interpretation concerning his speeches and writings.
When in my last posting on this blog I suggested that Steiner was not seen at his best in the comments he made on French language and culture during his meetings with the teachers at the first Waldorf school, this provoked reactions all round among both pro- and anti-Steiner factions. Some of the pro-Steiner people adopted a tone of regret that I had been so naïve as to go into such troubled territory. One commenter said: “He (Steiner) gives his usual thorough attention to the concern of switching from French to Russian. The remark in question, concerning the transplanting of the black race into Europe, is being misunderstood. Unfortunately, it is Jeremy that is instigating it as an indication of Steiner’s racial prejudice”.
Of the anti-Steiner people, Tom Mellett was gleeful to see that there were one or two anthroposophists who were prepared to acknowledge that Rudolf Steiner was a fallible human being as well as a high initiate, while struggling to conceal his relish that there was dissension in the Steiner camp. The real attitude of the antis, however, was displayed by their intellectual guru, Peter Staudenmaier, who commented: “When the denizens of the more clueless corners of the English-speaking anthroposophical world profess themselves shocked, shocked! at discovering some rebarbative passage by Steiner, they have no idea how much else they are missing. Until they learn more about what their founder actually taught, it will be hard for them to make basic sense of their own ideological inheritance”.
Well, mote and beam, Staudi, mote and beam. Though I have in the past expressed gratitude to him for his genuinely useful work in bringing little-known (to me, at least) information about the history of anthroposophy and anthroposophists, Staudi’s weakness is that he does not seem able to move beyond his antipathy towards Steiner so as to see the man as a rounded whole, in his greatness, his strangeness and his humanness.
Add to this Staudi’s unfortunate habit of treating anthroposophists with contempt and scorn when they do not know or agree with everything he knows or thinks he knows, and we end up with very little chance of a reasonable dialogue – which is quite a missed opportunity.
I wonder why it is so difficult for people to take on board the fact that Steiner was not only a remarkable phenomenon, a truly great man with a huge range of achievements but also a human being, which by definition implies fallibility? Human beings are dualities, as Steiner himself taught; that is to say, each one of us has a light side and a dark side. Why is there such a need, among both pro- and anti-factions, for Steiner to have been a perfect human being, incapable of error? Is it an impossible paradox that someone, whose formative years were in the latter part of the 19th century in Central Europe and whose main work was in the early years of the 20th century, should be at one and the same time not only a high initiate with access to extraordinary knowledge and wisdom but also a man of his time, with some of the attitudes of his age and nation?
I don’t agree with those anthroposophists who engage in all sorts of casuistry to demonstrate that Steiner didn’t have any racism in his outlook. I do agree with Dr Adrian Anderson, who in his paper Opponents and Critics: Criticism of Steiner and Anthroposophy, says the following:
“… Anyone who can discern the spiritual integrity of Steiner, as evidenced in his teachings on ethics and spirituality, is aware that he was certainly not a person who harbours dislike, and encourages hostility of, people based on their racial characteristics. Those who study Steiner carefully, encounter ideas which have a profoundly spiritual nature. But this argument is of little weight with those who cannot, or do not want to, see the integrity of Steiner.
For example Steiner mentioned, in what amounts to a direct and total breach of modern anti-racism criteria, that the colour of the skin itself is an expression of various etheric and astral energies, and that these give a specific tone to the way the human mind manifests. It is true that when he was talking about this, he emphasised that the worthiness of the human being itself, of any racial origin, is not the theme, and is not being assessed in his lecture. But despite these words, any person today in assessing Steiner’s works against the modern definition of racism, has no option other than to conclude that they are to be defined today as racist; for logically viewed, this is simply the fact of the matter. And students of Steiner need to note this fact well”.
As I said in the previous posting, readers today need to come to their own conclusions about which Steiner they are meeting when they read any of the forty volumes of his writings or the thousands of lecture transcripts. Are they reading Steiner the initiate, or Steiner the man of his time, or Steiner the fallible human being? For myself, there are many times when I feel exalted, inspired and humbled by what Steiner has written or spoken and those passages are the ones that I take to have come from Steiner the high initiate. There are other times, but only a few, when I find passages by Steiner to be simply bizarre, plain wrong or even offensive. On occasion, when one looks more deeply into the matter, it’s possible to see that Steiner is unfolding some really interesting and difficult ideas that challenge our present-day attitudes and opinions; and sometimes one thinks he is just way off-beam and the sheer strangeness of his thought seems very remote from our life and times. But my overriding impression is of Steiner’s great love for all humanity, his vision of our future, his genius and his wisdom.
There are some people, of course, who for whatever reason, can never begin to approach the surpassing strangeness and visionary genius of Rudolf Steiner with anything other than antipathy or hatred. Marie Steiner wrote about this after his death:
“… On 30th March, 1925 Rudolf Steiner passed away.
His life, consecrated wholly to the sacrificial service of humanity, was requited with unspeakable hostility; his way of knowledge was transformed into a path of thorns. But he walked the whole way, and mastered it for all humanity. He broke through the limits of knowledge; they are no longer there. Before us lies this road of knowledge in the crystal clarity of thoughts …. He raised human understanding up to the spirit; permeated this understanding and united it with the spiritual being of the cosmos. In this he achieved the greatest human deed. The greatest deed of the Gods he taught us to understand; the greatest human deed he achieved. How could he escape being hated with all the demonic power of which Hell is capable?
But he repaid with love the misunderstanding brought against him”.