The Threefold Social Order – has it been forgotten? (Part 2)


Part 2 of 3

2 Hindrances and Obstacles

In my observation there are several factors or obstacles that presently make it very difficult for people, or even prevents them, coming to a clear perception of the threefold social order. I give below what I think are four of the major factors why so little progress has been made over the years. If progress is to be made, these need to be understood and worked around.

1) People often attempt to arrive at an understanding of economic activity along the path necessary in other fields of anthroposophical study, that is, along the inner path of thinking and meditation. The path to all forms of higher knowledge is one that an individual has to go alone – “in the loneliness of his study”. That is right for those active in the cultural sphere of society. But a truly social form of economic activity cannot be sought along that lonely path. That can only be achieved in any particular place or time by, and in conjunction with, those actually active in that community.

What products of economic activity people need, the values they place on any particular product and the prices they are willing or able to pay vary from place to place, from time to time, and from one people to another. There is no universal reality in economic life. What people want, and what they can or are willing to pay will constantly vary according to many factors such as climate, fashion, religion, people’s ages and educational attainments. In markets, whether of products, commodities or financial, whether small and local, large or global, prices will always fluctuate. Immense work and study goes into predicting future prices, but they can never be actually known. This is why markets, particularly financial markets, take on the characteristics of gambling casinos.

New inventions are being created, new products thought up and produced. For most there is no possible certain knowledge as to whether they will be wanted and so will sell at a particular price until they are actually put on the market. We do not see the many that are put on the market but fail. Watch the television programme “Dragon’s Den” and one soon sees the uncertainty in it all.

The economy is a creation of human beings, not of the spiritual world, and in our time an understanding of it can only be reached by human beings active in it and working together in community. There is no other way.

Rudolf Steiner points to this particularly in the final lecture of

The Esoteric Aspect of the Social Question[i].

Human beings of course must not only seek the path to the supersensible world and to nature, but out of their own thoughts they must seek the path leading to social life. However, as social life cannot be developed alone but only through really experiencing other people, the lonely people of our modern age are not exactly best suited to develop social thinking. Just when they came to the point of wanting to attain something worthwhile by means of their inner forces, the results of their efforts turned out to be anti-social, not social thinking at all! People’s present-day inclinations and longings are the outcome of spiritual forces arrived at in loneliness and are given a false direction by the overwhelming influence of ahrimanic materialism.

. . . .

If you look into Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s “Geschlossener Handelsstaat” you will see that it is the social ideal of a person who really and truly was endeavouring his utmost to tread the highest paths of knowledge, and who developed the kind of thinking that constantly tended towards the supersensible world. However, when he tried to work out for himself a social ideal, even though it came entirely from his heart, we see that the very thing that suits us when we pursue for ourselves the highest ideals of knowledge is a handicap when applied to the kind of thinking necessary for working in social life. The kind of spiritual work Fichte did requires to be done alone, whereas social thinking has to be worked out in a community of other human beings, where the chief task of the thinker is to consider how the social organism might be laid out so that people may work together in the right way to found a social existence within the social realm itself. . . .

And another extract from:

The Social Question[ii],

Above all we must learn really to think as modern people, so as to come to a formation of a social judgement in the modern sense – but let us not take that superficially, Ladies and Gentlemen. We can only do this if we see into the depths beneath the surface of social phenomena. There it is revealed that however clever and however intelligent and even idealistic and practical a person may be – I should like to underline the word practical three times – the individual as such cannot attain to a social judgement. It is a social mystery, Ladies and Gentlemen, that every individual judgement on a social question is a false one.

Study what clever judgements were passed when the gold standard was introduced into Europe. Whoever steeps himself in what was said at that time in trade associations, in Parliament – I am not saying this ironically, but with full conviction – there you have an excellent example of human cleverness. It was very impressive to hear all these extremely clever people talk, or at any rate to absorb what was said from the middle of the nineteenth century about the influence of the gold standard upon the social ordering of the world. And it was above all emphasized, so logically and so practically as to be very impressive, that if we had the gold standard free trade would flourish. The very opposite has happened. We have been obliged to see the customs barriers erected again as the direct consequence of the gold standard, which means that exceedingly clever people looking into the future have talked nonsense.

This is not a complaint. It has happened because the cleverest people, however many of them there are, talk utter nonsense as regards their social judgements if they speak as individuals, if they judge only with what comes out of the single individuality.

Hence today it is not at all a question of allowing ourselves to be moved by all the wide spread misery in the world. The individual can form no judgement as to cause and effect. We have to go deeper. We have to look to the organisation of humanity. We have to ask ourselves how a real judgement can come about.

It is probably true to say that a very large number of articles published on the threefold social order have been written by people involved in work in the cultural sphere, that is, in spiritual work that requires one to work “in the loneliness of one’s study” – the way least suited to understanding the social problem. That, of course, is where most anthroposophists work, or where their anthroposophical interests lie. Many of these articles have been carefully thought through and are often interesting to read, but too often do not lead into the actual practice of life, into how practically to work into social life. Others seem to remain in the realm of academia, they give the impression that the writer has not experienced the practical side of life, the actual activity of production and distribution, nor of the dehumanising effects of much of economic life and so have not properly understood what it was Steiner was actually saying.

All true cultural activity of necessity starts from a form of egoism. Division-of-labour, the basis of all economic production, increases in productivity the more people work together in mutual cooperation in order to produce not what they themselves need, but what is needed by others. Egoism works in the opposite direct to division-of-labour and nullifies its benefits to the community. Steiner goes into this in an interesting and informative way in lecture three of World Economy.

I was happy to see Steiner’s very important lectures on economics back in print. But it provides interesting examples of what I have just been indicating. Firstly, it is unfortunate that the title has been changed from “World Economy” to “Rethinking Economics”. Much in those lectures points to the fact that the actual economy at the time the lectures were given was beginning to evolve from the stage of many self-contained national economies trading with each other to the stage of a one-world economy that has to be complete in itself. But economic thinking of the time had itself remained at the stage of national economies. Now, in our time, the fact that we are in a partial world economy is widely accepted and economic thinking is already concerned with the problems of world economy. It seems to me extraordinarily unfortunate that just as the world economy he pointed to, and that these lectures were a sort of preparation for, actually becomes reality the words “World Economy” should be dropped from the title and the name “Rethinking Economics” given them instead.

If we look at this new title, what is actually meant by the word “rethinking”? What is being “rethought”? It is clear from the lectures that Steiner did not start with thinking, he started with observation. As I have shown above, he pointed to the fact that one could not come to an understanding of economics by thinking alone. In these particular lectures, he says:

World Economy[iii] lecture 10

This is the great difficulty which besets the formation of economic ideas. You cannot form them in any other way than by conceiving things pictorially. No abstract concept can enable you to grasp the economic process; you must grasp it in pictures. Whereas it is just this which makes the learned world so uneasy today – this demand, no matter in what sphere of thought, that we should pass from the mere abstract concepts to ideation of an imaginative kind. Yet we can never found a real science of Economics without developing pictorial ideas; we must be able to conceive all details of our Economic Science in imaginative pictures. And these pictures must contain a dynamic quality; we must become aware how such a process works under each new form that it assumes.[iv]

This also applies to the working of “economic-associations”, the essential future organising and leadership organs of the economic sphere. The imaginative pictures Steiner speaks of above can only be arrived at by people actually involved in the economic process, and then each can only come to them as he sees them from his particular activity. To put it simply, we can say that the producer will see the economic process he is involved in from the point of view from where he stands in it, similarly the distributer and consumer will come to different pictures from where they stand. Only when the three come together, in the right sense of community, the sense for the economic process as a whole, will the group be able to come to a correct picture of the whole. The individual, out of himself, cannot do this.

I would like to give another example, also from Rethinking Economics, of the present widespread approach to an understanding of economics and threefold social order that may seem trivial but which I believe is, again, too symptomatic not to be taken seriously. In the penultimate paragraph of the last lecture of the original translation of World Economy[v] Steiner is translated as saying: For this very reason, ladies and gentlemen, it gave me deep satisfaction to see you here, prepared to work with me during these two weeks, thinking through the realm of economic science. I thank you sincerely. I may express this thanks, for I believe I see how significant it is – how very much those whose position in life today is that of students of economics can contribute to the healing of our civilisation and to the reconstruction of our human life.

In Rethinking Economics the words I have underlined have been changed to: that those who stand in life today as academics

The notice on the title page gives the translators as A.O. Barfield and T. Gordon-Jones, that is, the original translation was used in the new publication. But it is clear that the translation has, in places, been edited. I have no problem about that, provided the editing is an improvement or correction. But why, in this case was “students of economics” changed to “academics”? It makes no sense to think that Steiner would say to students of economics who have just been working with him through fourteen lectures and workshops that “academics”, or “students in general”, can contribute to the healing of our civilisation and to the reconstruction of our human life. Clearly he was referring to the people he had been working intensely with – students of economics – because this particular subject was important and had to be approached and understood with different faculties than other “academic” subjects. But in this edited translation an important point that Steiner had made a particular point of saying has been lost. There is much about this particular publication of Steiner’s lectures that seem to want to take them into the cultural/academic world. But as I have tried to point out, Steiner himself suggests that there, in what is right for cultural/spiritual studies, they cannot be understood correctly. The cultural and economic spheres of social life have to be seen as very different, in fact as, in every way, opposites. What is true and right for one is almost always untrue and harmful for the other.

2) To understand a second major factor that has caused, and continues to cause, considerable confusion in attempts to understand and work with the threefold social order, it is necessary to differentiate between two usages of the word “social”. (What I say here relates to the English word, but I believe it is also true when applied to the original German). One usage refers to human society as a whole and how it is organised. When Steiner spoke of the threefold “social” order, or of the “social question” he clearly referred to human society as a whole, its inherent threefold nature, and of how it needed to be organised or structured. Any smaller grouping or organisation cannot exist in isolation, only as part of the whole. In such smaller grouping the three sectors will, of course, be present and need to be taken into account according to their own natures, but they do not exist on their own.

The second usage of “social” is quite different in that it relates to the way in which people, singly or in groups behave and interact. It is in this sense that it is most widely used in anthroposophical circles. How people relate to and interact with each other in any social group, whether in a common study, a cultural activity or in a business or other economic organisation arises out of their individual lives of soul, and their karma. This is a question for each individual, not for humanity as a whole. Working with this can only be a matter for the cultural realm of human society.

The work of the NPI (Netherlands Pedagogical Institute) founded by Bernard Lievegoed, was an activity clearly within the second usage of this word. In its early years, and as it has developed since, it has been involved in working with and advising individuals, groups and organisations on social, development and management problems. It has done important work in enabling people to work together in, for example, overcoming personal antipathies and coming to difficult decisions. The threefold social order and the restructuring of human society as a whole according to its three quite different sectors has never been part of its primary impulse. But not all the people who became involved in the work of the NPI were able to make the distinction and considerable confusion arose, particularly, in my experience, in the 70s and 80s of the last century, and, in some people’s minds, has continued ever since.

Through the Social Development Centre at Emerson College I got to know a number of people from the NPI who came onto the staff there. I myself was then fairly new to anthroposophy and to the ideas of the threefold social order. In many discussions with them, some of whom became friends and for whose work I felt great respect, it became clear that they did not differentiate between these two usages of the word “social”. I did not understand this then but from what I knew of the threefold social order, I knew something was wrong – what they were teaching was something quite different. For example, they spoke of the “spiritual”, “social” and “economic” spheres. In the cultural/spiritual sphere they placed man’s relationship to the world of the higher hierarchies, in the social sphere the world of human beings and their relationship to each other, and in the economic sphere man’s relationship to the lower kingdoms – the animal, plant and mineral kingdoms. In their particular work and teaching this was quite correct, but it was quite different from everything Steiner said of the threefold social order. Clearly the rights sphere of the threefold social order – the sphere of the State, of law and order, of that which relates solely to life between birth and death – cannot also be the social sphere which includes karmic relationships. This and other such discrepancies have led to considerable confusion. Later, Ernst Amons, who had at one time worked very closely with Lievegoed particularly in the founding of the Vrije Hogeschool, told me that Lievegoed himself had told him that he had never worked closely with Steiner’s threefold social order. His work arose from his medical training. Much then became clear to me.

The work of the NPI fulfilled an important need, both in anthroposophical organisations and in the world at large, but this confusion, has contributed to the fact that work with what Steiner had brought of the threefold social order has slowly been pushed to the background and has now almost been lost sight of. Until this unfortunate but understandable confusion is recognised and worked with I do believe there will be little understanding of what Steiner gave us as the threefold social order.

Another result of this, when looking at organisations active within the economic sector, the focus of people’s consciousness has tended to be focused on the single organisations, seeing each as separate from others and complete in itself, rather than on the process of production of which the single organisation plays only a part and could not exist except as a part of the whole. So the focus of our consciousness has not reached to world economy, and will not do so until we first come to see the single economic organisation as fulfilling one or more functions within a world economic processes. Only then will we come to a perception of the one world economy.

Another factor arising from this is that, so long as we see only the individual organisations, and do not see the economic process that includes the many productive organisations, each also working on and playing their part in the production and distribution of each completed product, what Steiner pointed to as Economic Associations will not be fully understood.

The economic problem is not a question of individuals learning to bring morality into their work, but of people learning to work fruitfully for all humanity according to the inherent moral nature of the economic process of production and distribution based on division-of-labour.

3) A third problem is this: If we look at the whole range of activities founded on the work of Rudolf Steiner: education, agriculture, arts and crafts in all their forms, medicine and therapy, science, Christian Community, banking, consultancy and others, these are all activities or occupations in their own right in all of which there are people actually involved in and carrying the work professionally. But the threefold social order is something quite different. It is not an activity, occupation or profession in its own right. Like anthroposophy itself, it touches and therefore concerns every human being. It is anthroposophy, or spiritual science, itself giving form and structure to the practical side of social life. Only when this is enabled to come about will the individual feel that the practical arrangements of the organisation or community in which he works is true to his own threefold nature, and so feel at home and able to make a full commitment to the whole. At the beginning of the lecture “The Mysteries of Light, of Space and of the Earth”[vi] Steiner refers to the threefold social order as the practical side of spiritual science: “When in the present time the practical side of our spiritual scientific effort, the Threefold Social Order, is placed before the world as the other side has been . . . .”

But this can only be achieved if some understanding of the threefold social order, and the will to bring it into the organisation, lives within those active in the organisation, particularly those in positions of leadership and management. It is not enough for just one or two people to have the impulse and understanding to achieve what is needed. In my view, the will to structure the organisation on the basis of its threefold nature and of understanding something of what this means must live in more than just a small minority of those carrying the work of the organisation.

There are, however, difficulties to be overcome before anything like this can be achieved. The great majority of people carrying important work in anthroposophical organisations already work long hours and put all their energy into that work and into studying what they need in order to strengthen and deepen that work. They are, understandably, reluctant to give time to studying something that they do not recognise as directly contributing to their particular work. So the threefold social order has too often come to be treated as something extra and beyond what a person needs for his work, a special interest or even something like a hobby. It is not given the serious study and support that it needs if it is ever to enter into the life of humanity and to bring the healing forces and the reconstruction of social life so desperately needed.

4) There is a widespread tendency, particularly in the world at large but also in anthroposophical circles, to act and think as though money has a reality in itself. We assume we have something because we bought it, because we paid money for it. Our consciousness stops there. Because, in the complexity of today’s world economic productive process, we cannot know all that had to happen in order that what we want could be there in the shop for us to buy, it does not mean that we should act as though it comes into being in the shop and we have it because we pay money for it. That becomes a denial of the reality and nature of the actual world economic process and, more seriously, of the existence of all the people who labour in it, a large part of the world population.

In not seeing the actual productive process we come to see the money as that which enables us to have what we buy, and in the money we sense mysteries that are not actually there.

When we do look at the productive process the focus of attention too often stops short at management and business, and we have come to see “business” as the actual economic sector of social life. The productive process and the people who labour “on the factory floor”, those who are the real economic workers, are too often not seen.

We live on what is actually produced by human activity, not on the money which stands for, or represents, its economic value.

When we see money as having value in itself we fail to see and distinguish between money that stands for something real, a product of people’s work – real money – and money that comes into being when what are matters properly belonging to the sphere of human rights, such as land or shares in a business, are treated as economic products, which they are not, and are bought and sold on the market. This money does not represent anything real – it is a false or counterfeit money in that it purports to stand for an economic value that it does not.

Before we can come to any clear idea of the true nature and form of the three different sectors of social life we must first come to see beyond the money. Only then will we come to clarity as to what is an economic product, what is a human right and what is the proper sphere of the free cultural/spiritual life. Until we come to clarity in this we will never come to the threefold social order. Money itself has taken on the qualities of a veil or fog through which it is hard to see what actually is real. There is an enormous amount of research, discussion and written works given to understanding money and of how to heal the economy through controlling the money, but comparatively little attention to the actual social economic process itself. Until the focus of our attention comes back to the economic process and away from looking into the assumed mysteries of money, we will not come to an understanding of the social question.

Rudolf Steiner says of money in World Economy[vii]

In the circulation of money we have, in effect, the world’s bookkeeping. This is, as everyone can really see for themselves, what should be aimed at. In this way we give back to money the only quality that it can properly have – that of being the external medium of exchange. Look into the depths of economic life, and you will see that money can be nothing else than this. It is the medium of exchange of services or things done. For in reality human beings live by the things actually done, not by the tokens thereof.


(Part 3 follows)

[i] The Esoteric Aspect of the Social Question – GA328 – lecture 4, Rudolf Steiner Press – 9/3/1919, Zurich

[ii] The Social Question, GA305 – lecture 2, 28/8/1922, Oxford

[iii] World Economy lecture 10, page 129, Rethinking Economics page 124

[iv] The Esoteric Aspect of the Social Question – GA328 – lecture 4, Rudolf Steiner Press – 9/3/1919, Zurich

[v] World Economy – lecture 14 penultimate paragraph

[vi] The Mysteries of Light, of Space and of the Earth –GA194 lecture given in Dornach on 15th December 1919

[vii] World Economy, lecture 14, page 176, Rethinking Economics page 172


Filed under Anthroposophy, Emerson College UK, Rudolf Steiner, Threefolding

3 responses to “The Threefold Social Order – has it been forgotten? (Part 2)

  1. I think that Michael Spence isn’t being quite fair to Lievegoed and NPI when he uses the example below:

    “I did not understand this then but from what I knew of the threefold social order, I knew something was wrong – what they were teaching was something quite different. For example, they spoke of the “spiritual”, “social” and “economic” spheres. In the cultural/spiritual sphere they placed man’s relationship to the world of the higher hierarchies, in the social sphere the world of human beings and their relationship to each other, and in the economic sphere man’s relationship to the lower kingdoms – the animal, plant and mineral kingdoms. In their particular work and teaching this was quite correct, but it was quite different from everything Steiner said of the threefold social order. Clearly the rights sphere of the threefold social order – the sphere of the State, of law and order, of that which relates solely to life between birth and death – cannot also be the social sphere which includes karmic relationships. This and other such discrepancies have led to considerable confusion. Later, Ernst Amons, who had at one time worked very closely with Lievegoed particularly in the founding of the Vrije Hogeschool, told me that Lievegoed himself had told him that he had never worked closely with Steiner’s threefold social order. His work arose from his medical training. Much then became clear to me…. “

    The example “spiritual, social and economic spheres” does not refer to the macro-social aspect, that is, society as a whole, but the the meso-social aspect: organizations. In an organization, a Waldorf school fe, the spiritual/cultural sphere is the Waldorf pedagogy, extant and learnable; the economic sphere is, well, just that: how are we going to finance this enterprise? The “social” sphere points to the interaction between individuals and groups within the organization, the most difficult part, and where NPI consultants emphasis lay. If there was confusion about this, confusing it with the macro-social where the middle region is represented by the rights-state, it was/is the result of the confused. In my limited experience, the NPI people were quite aware of the difference between an organization and society as a whole.


    • I would like to reiterate something I said in Part One of this discourse on Threefolding of the Social Order, and it concerns how an official act of the Catholic church had the power to make all of western society into a dualistic mind-set. Here it is:

      Now, in consideration of Part Two, wherein hindrances and obstacles are observed, is it not without significance that the element of the Trinity, in terms of the Spirit, was banned by the church in 869 AD? And people fail to realize how much this decree had widespread effect throughout the western world in making man a being of body and soul only.

      Thus, we began to think and believe in terms of dualities only; mere opposites. This has even become an educational standard today. So, how could threefolding ever have the possibility of success without the re-inclusion of the missing middle term, i.e., Spirit, which Rudolf Steiner attempted?

      The problem of threefolding today is that we are “third-force blind” to the fact that there is a middle, and resolving term, to the dualism of left-right thinking. We had better learn it in order to effectuate something better.



      • So, if I may, this idea of being “third-force blind”, has a definite history to it. Heraclitus, the leader of the Mystery of Ephesus at the mid-point of the Greek millennium, formulated the first “rational logos” of pairs-of-opposites in his 100 epigrams. Yet, the resolving ‘middle term’ was always intuitively held at this time. Heraclitus, a philosopher, was aided immensely in this formulation by the two initiates who had been formerly incarnated as Gilgamesh and Eabani, and would incarnate again as Aristotle and Alexander in 150 years.

        Thus, Aristotle represents a kind of model of threefoldness. He left Plato’s Academy in order to further assess the existence of the Law of Three working in the developing sense-perceptible world. First, he saw three components to deductive reasoning, which formed the logical syllogism of: major premise, minor premise, conclusion. Then, once this was firmly placed before the mind’s eye, the three kingdoms of nature arose: Mineral, Plant, Animal, for further categorization and classification. The veritable beginning of natural science.

        Over time, we have become what could be termed, “third-force blind” to the existence of this middle term, which is not active or passive, or cause and effect, but, rather, neutral, and capable of giving results. The power of this third force is exactly what Christ brought with Him into earth evolution. It is a resolving power; the power of Resolution.

        Thus, in ordinary thinking we realize the existence of two forces—action and resistance, positive and negative electricity, and so on. But in this state of consciousness we do not see that three forces are always present in every event, in every phenomenon, and that only a conjunction of three forces can produce an event. Two forces cannot produce anything—they will only turn round one another without any result. It takes a long time to begin to see three forces in things—for some reason we are third force blind, although we can observe it in many chemical reactions and biological phenomena. Even when we fully understand that nothing can happen without the presence of all the three elements, in relation to ourselves we are inclined to forget or disregard it. We do not fully observe even two forces and generally expect things to happen when only one force is present.

        Now, of course, adding to the problem of achieving threefolding in our time, is the existence of the oligarchy as a form of rulership, seen with the Catholic church, c. 869, and the various business and government entities seen since then. The goal is to intentionally withhold the third force as a means of resolution, and keep everything within the patented dualism of the rational logos of Heraclitus. Yet, at the time of Ephesus, everything was pointed toward the incarnation of Christ, as the Great Resolver of everything considered rational.



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