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Introducing Rudolf Steiner
by Owen Barfield

Rudolf Steiner was born on February 27, 1861 in Kraljevec (now in Yugoslavia) the son of a minor railway official. At the age of eighteen he entered the Technische Hochschule in Vienna, where he studied mathematics, science, literature, philosophy and history, developing a special interest in Goethe. Three years later, still in Vienna, he was employed to edit Goethe's scientific writings for Kurschner's Nationalliteratur; from 1890 to 1897, at the Goethe and Schiller Archives in Weimar, he was engaged editing, for another edition of the Collected Works, virtually the whole of Goethe's scientific writings published and unpublished. His autobiography tells how at this time he enjoyed the friendship of a number of eminent men, such as Ernst Haeckel, the dogmatic exponent of Darwinian evolution, and Hermann Grimm, the historian. It was during this period also that he took his Ph.D. at Rostock University with a dissertation later to be revised and published under the title Wahrheit und Wissenschaft (Truth and Science).

During the next four years Steiner became deeply involved in the intellectual life -- literary and dramatic societies and periodicals and so forth -- of Berlin, while at the same time he began his lifelong lecturing activity by giving courses of lectures under the auspices of the Workers Education Movement.

It was not till the turn of the century that his true genius, unable to find expression through any of these outlets, but which had been steadily maturing within him, first came forth into the light. The historical moment was that one in which the western mind had reached the lowest depths of materialism, and there were few who would even listen to what he had to say. Outstanding among those few were the members of the Theosophical Society, who were in the act of founding a German Section. Steiner joined it, became its president (making the condition that he would be free to propound the results of his own spiritual research whether or no they accorded with the tenets of the Society) and remained with it for some years, until the sensationalism and triviality which he felt was corroding the sound impulse that had led to the Society's foundation obliged him to separate himself from it altogether.

The next ten years of his life are best seen as the first phase of the Anthroposophical movement, and in 1913 the Society bearing that name was founded by his followers in Munich, where his four Mystery Plays were later to be written and produced. There is not space here to deal with the distinction between that and the General Anthroposophical Society, which he himself founded in December 1923, a little more than two years before his death on the 30th March 1925. Suffice it to say that from 1902 to the end of his life he devoted all his energies (writing some forty books and delivering not less than six thousand lectures) to the cultivation and dissemination of Anthroposophy -- to which he also gave the name of Spiritual Science -- and at the last, to the affairs of the Anthroposophical Society, which he hoped would become the germ of a worldwide community of human souls.

So much for externals. As to the substance of his teachings and his life, I cannot see him otherwise than as a key figure -- perhaps on the human level, the key figure -- in the painful transition of humanity from what I have ventured to call original participation to final participation. The crucial phase in that transition was, and indeed is, modern man's inveterate habit of experiencing matter devoid of spirit, and consequently of conceiving spirit as less real, and finally as altogether unreal. That experience, for good and ill, lies at the foundation of contemporary science and technology, and is daily confirmed and ingrained by their predominance in all walks of life and areas of thought. Consequently the redemption of science is a sine qua non for the transition. Goethe's scientific work, properly understood, went far towards achieving that redemption, and Steiner welcomed it for that reason and then went on to develop it further. We see Goethe achieving and applying what he called "objective thinking," an activity and an experience that transcends the gulf between subject and object and thus overcomes that diremption of matter from spirit to which I have referred. The redemption of science presupposes the redemption of thinking itself.

But Goethe refused to think about the "objective thinking" he applied so effectively. Steiner on the other hand did precisely that and in his earliest writings, for example Truth and Science and The Philosophy of Freedom, succeeded in transcending the crucial dichotomy epistemologically too. The thinking of others, such as Hegel and the Nature Philosophers in Germany and Coleridge in England, had taken the same direction, but none of them had achieved their aim so authoritatively or so completely. Coleridge could write of "organs of spirit," with a latent function analogous to that of our more readily available organs of sense, and Goethe could apply his objective thinking to supplement causality with metamorphosis. But neither of them could carry cognition of spirit beyond spirit-as-phenomenally-apparent in external nature; it was in Steiner that western mind and western method first achieved cognition of pure spirit. The others were all apostles of Imagination in its best sense, Steiner alone of those profounder levels he himself termed Inspiration and Intuition, but which may together be conceived of as Revelation -- as Revelation in the form appropriate to this age -- as a mode of cognition, to which the noumenal ground of existence is accessible directly, and not only through its phenomenal manifestation, to which therefore even the remote past can become an open book.

It seems that at any point of time when human consciousness is called on to take an entirely new direction, to effect a real transition, a seed surviving from the past is needed to shelter the tender germ of the future. Aristotle, the father of modern science carried within him his twenty years under Plato in order to turn effectively away from them. In the early years of Christianity it was those in whom something of the old spiritual perception still lingered, who were best adapted to understand the cosmic significance of the life and death of Christ. Gnosticism had done its work before it was rejected by the Church. Steiner himself as a child brought with him into the world a vestigial relic of the old clairvoyance, the old "original" participation. Biographies and his own autobiography bear witness to it. And it is credibly reported of him that he took deliberate steps to eliminate it, not even rejecting the help of alcohol, in order to clear the decks for the new clairvoyance it was his destiny both to predict and to develop.

Rudolf Steiner was in fact not merely a phenomenally educated and articulate philosopher but also a Man of Destiny; and I believe it is this fact that is so grievously delaying his recognition. By comparison, not only with his contemporaries but with the general history of the western mind, his stature is almost too excessive to be borne. Why should we accept that one man was capable of all these revelations, however meaningful they may be? But there is also the other side of the coin. If those revelations are accepted, they entail a burden of responsibility on humanity which is itself almost beyond description. It is easy to talk of macrocosm and microcosm, but for man the microcosm not only to believe but to realize himself as such, implies a greatness of spirit, a capacity of mind and heart, which we can only think of as superhuman rather than merely human. The mental capacities which Steiner's lifework reveals even to those who reject his findings, and the qualities of heart and will to which all those testify who had personally to deal with him may reassure us, by exemplifying, that the stature of microcosm is not, or may at least not be in the future, out of reach of man as we know him. In him we observe, actually beginning to occur, the transition from homo sapiens to homo imaginans et amans.

[This article originally appeared in TOWARDS, Fall-Winter, 1983; Reprinted 1995 by the Anthroposophical Society in America with support from the members of the Owen Barfield Study Group in the New York metropolitan area]

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