Rudolf Steiner’s spiritual experience was not one of usual prophecy. The prophet is struck by a terrible and holy ultimate he generally calls ‘God’; ...
Prophets generally challenge the contemporary status quo and in return are persecuted. No wonder many have tried to avoid the call to bear witness. ...
Had Rudolf Steiner had usual prophetic experience, the cry from his heart would probably have been, ‘How can I avoid speaking?’ rather than, ‘Must I remain silent?’ God did not appear to him through a terrible burning bush or its equivalent. Instead it was Steiner who was burning to end the spiritual isolation to which the development of his intuition had led. Contemplatives generally seem to be much less persecuted than prophets. Rather than preach to the masses with a message that confronts the powers that be, and which is radically different itself, they usually have a more conservative appeal, recruiting those of relative education and wealth (however universal the intentions). Contemplatives find an oceanic truth within or through the self, generally in a gradual, tolerant way. They tend to describe the ultimate as ineffable, with a pantheistic feel, rather than define it as a specific creator God who is self-existent.
minority contemplative traditions within the commanding orthodoxies ...have been precariously tolerated by these prophetic traditions. Why then did Rudolf Steiner, who wanted to tell of his experience, feel constraints? If contemplatives, unlike the generality of prophets, are often tolerated by most of their contemporaries, why should he have written his heartfelt, ‘Must I remain silent?’ ...
Steiner was impelled towards action. He did more than share his intuitions with a trusted few. He inspired, though the educational form of lectures, an active social organism with many applications, and centred this around a sacred building. ...
Steiner was claiming far more than many mystics who attempt to convey or suggest the ineffable through feeling. He believed in carrying clear and defined ideas into the soul. From his intuition he gave answers to just about every question that can be asked. He wrote that this was not a cold process and that he experienced a flood of warmth as a seer. He is considered to be an occultist because he described things that are normally unknowable or hidden, and yet he claimed virtual inerrancy. The social pressures for silence were also increased because he was alive during the development of our modern era, an age when dismissal or reduction of the spiritual has generally been the dominating moral and intellectual force.
...In a time of philosophical materialism Steiner was not a mere vague mystic, but from a very spiritual point of view rejected Darwinian orthodoxy. He also offended the long inherited tradition of Western culture, given that Christian orthodoxy was based on the suppression of gnosticism and Manicheism.
This book mentions thoughts which insiders have not widely publicised: for example, Rudolf Steiner seems to have believed that he was the reincarnation of Eabani, the consort of the hero of the Assyrio-Egyptians. Also, though Steiner believed in seven-year growth periods in which the individual human being recapitulates the evolution of the macrocosm, this framework does not seem to have been adopted by biographers writing about Steiner’s own growth. Anthroposophists do not consider it legitimate to attempt to do so, apparently because he himself did not link his own biographical experience to his revelation.
The eminent psychiatrist Anthony Storr in a work on gurus, Feet of Clay, suggested the presence of narcissism in that ‘even ostensibly humble gurus like Rudolf Steiner retain grandiose beliefs in their own powers of perception and their own cosmogonies’. He also wrote that Steiner, though neither suffering from paranoid schizophrenia ‘nor being psychotic in the sense of being socially disabled’ shares ‘certain characteristics with patients whom psychiatrists would designate as paranoid’. In the DSMIV ‘this diagnosis would now be Delusional Disorder: Grandiose Type’. But otherwise he described Steiner as a mild, gentle, good, kindly man of high ideals and high intelligence who inspired other people and who certainly did far more good than harm.
The great changes associated with industrialisation and urbanisation have been generally linked in Europe with the decline of traditional institutional religion. ...
...Experimental contact with 'spirits of the dead' through a medium, filled a void felt by many in the changing conditions of the second half of the nineteenth century. Spiritualism became extremely popular after Kate and Margaret Fox, of Hydesville, NY, claimed fraudulently that they had heard 'spirit rappings'. Throughout the USA and northern Europe it added mystery to the formalized Christian observances. In the UK, socially segregated séances were attended by bishops, detached scientists and 'irreligious' workers. The widowed Queen Victoria herself was interested in the possibility of communicating with a survival of the human personality after death. Mary Baker Eddy was a devotee before renouncing spiritualism and founding Christian Science; so was Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. Known to her adherents as 'H.P.B.', Blavatsky founded the Theosophical Society in New York in 1875. This extraordinary Russian emigrée claimed to be inspired by spiritual 'Masters' in Tibet, though her highly synthesised esoteric revelation was also influenced by Hinduism, Buddhism, maybe Syrian-Egyptian gnosticism, and other non-Tibetan sources. She claimed that her esoteric synthesis is universally valid, a 'spiritual science' that expresses the 'true religion' from which the forms of world religions have been created. This appealed to many relatively educated people who were spiritually minded but perplexed by the growing trend towards cultural relativism.
... After Blavatsky's death in 1891, the organisational and moral flair of Annie Besant was the leading force behind Theosophy's second stage. The revelation was made more conceptual and the movement acquired a radical social conscience. It was particularly important for the part it played in the revival of Hinduism in India and Buddhism in Sri Lanka, and the spread of liberal democratic ideas in both nations.3 By 1899 the society had 356 'Lodges', 187 in India, sixty-eight in America and fifty-eight in Europe. But Theosophy had made little headway in newly united Germany.
Besant felt little rapport with Rudolf Steiner but expected much from his leadership of the German Section of the Theosophical Society. He built up a sizeable new following in the growing industrial and urbanised life of Wilhelminian Germany. From 1902, when Steiner became General Secretary of the German Section, to 1913, membership expanded from a few individuals to sixty-nine Lodges. Fifty-five of these (about 2,500 people) seceded with him at that time to form the new Anthroposophical Society.5 The others remained in the Theosophical Society and were led by Dr Huebbe-Schleiden. This divisive split between, broadly, Germanic and English-speaking esotericism parallels and was presumably influenced by the growing rivalry between Wilhelminian Germany and Edwardian Great Britain. The main Anthroposophical centres were Berlin, Munich, Stuttgart, Hamburg, Cologne and Leipzig, with Vienna and Prague also probably having had members. The people who came to Anthroposophy had usually failed to find in the scientific world conception and in the traditional religious teachings the spiritual content for which they longed, Steiner wrote. In general he saw Anthroposophists as homeless souls, while Marie Steiner later described the movement as a nursing home.
As Steiner came more and more to teach his own revelation, emerging as the hero/leader of German-style theosophy, he faced increasingly strained relations with Besant, who became President of the Theosophical Society in 1907. He admitted that she was tolerant of his different direction until about 1905 or 1906, defending its right to exist even though she did not understand it. Up to this time he was using Theosophical terminology much more than was the case later and once even legitimised himself by saying, 'Mme Blavatsky intended to express this in her theory'.8 From about this time, however, the divergence could not be ignored, because he was lecturing on the core of his Anthroposophy, soon to be published as Occult Science. Despite basic similarities, it was also obviously different in content and style from Blavatsky's Secret Doctrine. This new German 'Theosophy' was apparent to everyone at the International Congress at Munich in May 1907.
The cultural gulf between Steiner and Theosophy, augmented by the military contest between the Germans and British, made a breach at some stage before the end of the 1914-1918 war unsurprising. The occasion for it was both unsavoury and ludicrous. Rumours surrounded a leading English Theosophist, the Rev'd Charles Leadbeater, who is said once to have written to Besant that one of his last incarnations had been in ancient Greece where pederastic propensities had been regarded quite differently. On an occasion that was to have far-reaching consequences, she was met by him at Madras station. An eager, large-eyed boy who was unknown to her shyly placed a garland around her neck and Leadbeater introduced him as 'our Krishna'.
The Indian child, the son of an impoverished brahman clerk, was soon believed by Besant and many other Theosophists to be the 'World Teacher'. He was to become known as 'Krishnamurti'. The cult of Krishnamurti was given form in 1911 by the founding of the Order of the Star in the East. ...later the culturally transplanted young man, despite the support of Lady Emily Lutyens, would not match the entrance requirements for Oxford University, would become fond of golf, and would decide he was not the 'World Teacher' but an ordinary guru.
The Order of the Star in the East was anathema to Steiner and most German Theosophists, who considered themselves Western and saw the descent of Christ as the redeeming cosmic event. Of the Theosophists who had not joined the separate Order, few if any seem to have severed links with the Society. Steiner and his Anthroposophical group, however, declared that no one who joined the new Order could remain a member of the German Theosophical Society. By the end of 1912 Besant had ensured that the charter of the German Section was revoked by the General Council of the Theosophical Society. A new one was issued for the fourteen Lodges that remained loyal. The newly independent Anthroposophy was, numerically, a relatively insignifi cant offshoot from Theosophy. Besant complained that Rudolf Steiner’s Executive Council sent her a telegram demanding her resignation ‘couched in insulting language for the benefit of the public - as people of a certain type write on post-cards’.11 Steiner attacked the ‘Besant system’, and someone else accused her of having ‘descended to a very cruel and subtle slander’12 against him.
Not all Anthroposophists are visionaries but probably all acknowledge the legitimacy of vision. They generally aspire to become aware of 'etheric', 'astral' and other spiritual essences...The collective aspect of this striving tends to be concentrated in the School of Spiritual Science: it, more than any other social organ, is designed to be at the centre of the movement, the connecting corolla for its petals.
Steiner made provision for three Classes. Only one the 'First Class' is known to be in operation. There are no special conditions demanded for membership of the General Anthroposophical Society, which is exoteric and concerned with the external governance and arrangements of the movement. But the door of the First Class is not opened to everyone, and not all members wish to belong to it. ... At least two years' affiliation to the General Society is a pre-condition for joining. Also, 'inner responsibility' for Anthroposophy has to be accepted. Rudolf Steiner, who was distressed at the state of the movement, founded the First Class in 1923 as an organ of regeneration. Anthroposophists stress the individual taking responsibility, in contrast to the old mysteries where the neophyte was deemed ready by the hierophant and taken through a process controlled by others. In Anthroposophy you have to know for yourself when you are ready to start. The regenerating source is believed not to be accessed through a priest, temple, guru or Rudolf Steiner, but through yourself. The First Class adapts Steiner's meditative path for individuals. The latter is generally available in publications such as Occult Science and Knowledge of the Higher Worlds.3 However, only the place and times of meetings of local branches of the School of Spiritual Science are published, together with the number of the 'Lesson' concerned (there is a cycle of 19). Members of this elite are pledged to secrecy, a vow which is usually strictly observed. I had no success when I asked for information about the mantras of the First Class: I was told that they 'belong to the School'. The nineteen Lessons of the First Class contain mantras from Steiner and his own commentaries on them. When as an outsider I asked questions about them (or the commentaries on them), this was one of the few acts that would, almost predictably, incur annoyance.
Many outsiders erroneously suppose that Steiner was an 'educationalist', rather like Froebel, without realising that the core of the movement is his spiritual science. 'Waldorf' education is the most visible application of Anthroposophy, especially in West Germany, where by the early 1980s there were about 110 kindergartens and over 70 schools. (The Netherlands, the next most numerous country, then had over 40 schools.) In 1975 Waldorf education accounted for as much as 6.4 per cent of the total population of West German independent schools. The demand was said to exceed supply by a factor of three to five times.
In 1956 there were 12,432 West German pupils; in 1965, 13,147; in 1975, 20,797 (including 600 handicapped pupils); and there were as many as 32,250 in 1981. In 1978 Baden- Württemberg had well over 8,000 pupils, Northrhine-Westphalia just over 5,000 and Lower Saxony, Hesse and Bavaria about 2,000 each. Hamburg had 1,340 pupils. Thus the outreach of Anthroposophy is far larger than its membership figures suggest. In West Germany, and probably elsewhere, the children are apparently secluded as far as possible from the disrupting influences of modern society.
... The love and communal warmth do not foster critical ability ...
'The trainers in small as well as big companies have no idea what to do with them.'*
* Rita Bültemann's conclusion (after talking to the head of the training department of a large company).
The Christian Community was founded in 1922 by a Lutheran pastor, Dr Rittelmeyer, as a congregational community. Steiner was always in the background. It is based on the Anthroposophical revelation but has particularly stressed its Christian elements, including 'the transforming power of love - the Christ Impulse'. Its relationship with the remainder of Anthroposophy is recently perceived as having changed worldwide, with more give and take and fewer factions. Many people now, it may be, do not perceive much difference between the two. The Christian Community synod recently hosted by the Goetheanum is said to have been more integrated than the previous ones in the early 1980s and the early 1970s. Traditionally, however, the Christian Community has always been seen as being completely separate from the other Anthroposophical organizations. Indeed, in the early 1980s a message even reached me from its headquarters in Germany requesting me not to write on it in the same book in which I was describing Anthroposophy.
Organisationally, it is certainly separate. But as already stated, it is based on the spiritual realities revealed by Steiner and so, at a more fundamental level, is Anthroposophical, though it has the distinctive function of a church. Its extensive rituals have an esoteric rather than conventionally Christian feel. For example, the powers of the spiritual heights and material depths are acknowledged through holding the right hand up and putting the left hand out. The priests' chasubles have figures of eight to represent the infinite. The colours, such as the prevalent violet, relate to Steiner's spiritual science, especially perhaps his revelations about the 'human aura'...
The Dutch have been especially successful in bringing Steiner’s utopian and visionary plan for the future reconstitution of Europe, his ‘Threefold Commonwealth’, down closer to earth. Dr Lievegoed, a child psychologist, adopted a piecemeal approach in founding the NPI (the Netherlands Pedagogical Institute) in 1954. His concern in the 1960s that the society had closed forms led to a youth movement initiative.
A higher proportion of Dutch members than of those in the USA and UK seem to have been connected with commerce and industry; also, there have probably been more academics. The movement here, as elsewhere, has been very largely middle class. The Dutch medical side has been strong. One of the leading Anthroposophical doctors, Ita Wegman, was a close associate of Rudolf Steiner’s, and Dr Zeylmans van Emmichoven, General Secretary from 1923, was a pioneer in Anthroposophical care of the soul (psychology in an etymologically pure sense).
The greatest concentration of numbers has been at Zeyst and nearby Driebergen. The NPI with its twenty-five to thirty senior workers has been based here. There have also been various businesses, such as the export of bio-dynamic food under the name of ‘Aquarius’. Some charities, churches and other non-Anthroposophical organizations apparently used the ‘Triodos’ bank, an Anthroposophical organization which works with sister Rudolf Steiner institutions in the UK and elsewhere.
What is it like to be Anthroposophical? How can social living be 'esoteric', infused with spirit? The image of the rainbow, which comes down from the sky and contains all colours in itself, is a good one. There are no hard and fast distinctions in Anthroposophical life. The many applications (even if they are practical, as in the case of bio-dynamic farming) are also, if fully carried out, forms of meditation which lead to transcendence in a more spiritual individuality. Steiner was very strongly influenced by Goethe. Though he interpreted his many-sidedness from a highly spiritual point of view, Steiner agreed with Goethe's belief in the redeeming sanity of action. It is these meditative applications, or applied meditations, that constitute the everyday being of the movement. They are the Anthroposophical rainbow-like coherence- in-decentralisation. Since they are supported by the sections of the School of Spiritual Science, the School has an integrative function. Nearly all the applications are based on Steiner's 'indications', though there has been considerable work done since his death. They are aspects of his general cosmology.
Thought pictures are not the only means of 'initiation'. Sentences, formulae or single words may be objects of meditation. Study of The Philosophy of Freedom is another route to 'sense-free thinking'. Occasionally, initiation may be spontaneous. This is said only to occur where the person concerned was exceptionally developed in his previous incarnation. Concentrated meditation is said to perceive spiritual facts and spiritual beings which cannot be known by the senses. These have already been revealed by Steiner so the neophyte knows possible categories through which his or her experiences can be interpreted. Indeed, Steiner identified gnomes, salamanders, sylphs and elemental beings generally. One member told me he would have a 'direct glimpse of a being with bright eyes', that 'it would be dynamic' and might 'take a momentary form in consciousness'. He was replying after I asked how he could be sure that what he would see was a 'gnome'. Gnomes are not to be understood anachronistically as similar to mass-produced contemporary gnomes for the garden, but as an elemental equivalent of one of the angelic hierarchies. When thinking 'reaches upwards' from the head towards Imagination it is said to purify the feelings and will of the 'astral body' and thereby transform it into a higher, more spiritual body (which is known as 'spirit-self'). As a result the human aura is said to become purified and more differentiated. 'Lotus-flowers' apparently 'revolve' when a pupil meditates and clairvoyant perception begins.
No one beyond Steiner himself seemed to be credited with achieving the depth and strength of Intuition. On the way to it, Lucifer and Ahriman, appearing as the 'Lesser Guardians of the Threshold', are transcended through recognition of the sublime mystery of Christ, the 'Greater Guardian of the Threshold'. The successful conclusion, however, is viewed as leading to a conscious union with spirit within and beyond the body. Steiner stated that when an inwardly developed person says, 'I go through the door', his actual concept is, 'I carry my body through the door'. Conscious individual spirituality transcends and informs the physical body. Intuition is attained through letting go of even the meditation on the soul-activity that led from Imagination to Inspiration. The physical body itself is said to be transformed spiritually into a body which is a higher evolutionary form (known as 'spirit-man'). This leads on to a state in which man is aware of himself as being at one with the macrocosm, yet also as a fully developed individual.
'Science' for Anthroposophists is not what is usually meant by this English word in the Twentieth Century. German usefully has two words where English has one: Naturwissenschaften for strict (or null hypothesis-type) natural science, and Geisteswissenschaft for systematically making sense in the humanities. Steiner sought to 'free' the scientific method and spirit of research, which conventionally holds fast to the sequence and relationship of sense-perceptible events, from this 'restricted' application. Living Thinking, a path for the philosophically and mathematically inclined, and Goethean Science, which is based on observation, are generally held to be equivalent to the first stage of Imagination. Steiner was deeply influenced by Goethe's holistic scientific method, which he spiritualised as he adopted it into his burgeoning Anthroposophy. Goethean science's search amidst the multitude of plant forms for the archetypal plant (or Urpflanze) is considered a first step towards spiritual knowledge. There has been considerable Anthroposophical investigation of 'etheric' forces. They are identified with the 'four elements', the archetypal activities of earth, water, air and fire, which were once dynamic qualities in the medieval cosmos and are now Anthroposophical ('fire' is linked to 'warmth'). There is also a belief, consonant with traditional astrology, that minerals on earth are permeated by etheric streams from different planets; for example, lead is said to be affected by such influences from Saturn, tin from Jupiter, and copper from Mars.
Though Anthroposophical agriculture and horticulture have much in common with the ecological awareness of organic farming, their bio-dynamic rituals and preparations give them a further identity of their own. Bio-dynamic farming involves much more than being conventionally organic. Nature is theurgically 'dynamised' in the making of manures, compost harmonisers and so forth. Similar magical practices govern the mode and timing of application. Rhythm and direction are both prescribed in the ritual preparation. For example, a mixture mysteriously known as 'formula 500' - to conventional chemical analysis it is cow manure - is left in a cowhorn in the ground in winter (when the earth is said to be most 'alive'), then stirred in water according to a prescribed rhythm and direction for an hour. The final stage is the carrying out of the spraying procedures. '501', which to conventional chemical analysis is powdered quartz, is on the other hand left in a cowhorn in the earth during summer. It becomes a crop nutrient. Yarrow, dandelion, chamomile, nettle, valerian and oak-bark are used as bases for six preparations which 'harmonise' fermentation in manure and compost. They are enveloped in specific animal organs and exposed to seasonal soil or atmospheric influences. Quantitatively, yields are said to be comparable to chemical methods, but their quality is claimed to be much better.
Anthroposophical ritual and natural magic, which are intended to produce a different order of quality, involve heartfelt participation from those involved in the rites. Nor is technical knowledge a mere question of book-learning, for Imagination is a necessary aspect of farming. Without it, for example, the farmer will not know whether to use a given preparation. The biodynamic approach is thus perceived as a qualitative step beyond more usual organic agriculture. ... In Anthroposophy plants reflect immediately what is taking place in the planets. Furthermore, the elemental beings termed gnomes, below the earth's surface, help plant roots to grow, and the astral aura of cows nourishes the gnomes. Again, cud- chewing animals have the important spiritual function of bringing cosmic forces down to earth, and the task of birds is to carry earthly substance out into the cosmos. Thus the Anthroposophical farmer is aware of much more than pressing financial realities. Through bio-dynamic knowledge and procedures Anthroposophical cosmology is re-created in social practice.
One of the main contacts of the movement with the outside world is through Anthroposophical education. Indeed many people mistakenly seem to think of Steiner as a modern educationalist similar to Montessori. As a young man Steiner spent many years helping a hydrocephalic boy, the experience forming the basis of his later commitment to curative education. He understood pathology to be the result of imperfections in the hereditarily derived body. The individuality, he thought, is intact. There may be karmic reasons why an imperfect body is chosen before birth. A genius often goes through such an incarnation, apparently, or the defect may be the straightforward result of actions in a previous life. Those suffering from Down's syndrome are considered to have 'a particular mission, bringing the gift of their own heart forces unhindered by intellect and ambition to compete. Their very posture when in repose is like that of the Buddha.' Steiner saw it as a special grace to be granted the gift of such a child. Because of their gaiety and warm love, Down's Syndrome people are seen as the archetypal Gestalt of man before the Fall and consciousness of good and evil. They have a special meaning for Camphill members. Camphill children in need of special care often begin the day with music from flute or lyre and then, after breakfast, form a circle for morning song. Rhythmic intervals of silence arising from inner stillness are said to be essential therapeutically. These children 'go to school': there are classrooms, which are distinct from the substitute families with whom they live. A powerful therapeutic factor is said to be the interaction of those with diverse ailments, for example, the hyperactive and aggressive with the frail and physically handicapped, or withdrawn autistics with outgoing Down's Syndrome children.
Rudolf Steiner's simplest description of man was to compare him to a plant. The stalk is analogous to the soul, which 'takes root' in the physical world and 'blossoms', through the 'I', in the spiritual world. The familiar splitting into body, soul and spirit is the starting point from which he opens out his vision. A ninefold division arises through subdividing the three primary realities of body, soul and spirit into three subtle entities (or 'natures') each. The body of man is described as consisting of 'physical', 'etheric' and 'soul' natures or 'bodies'. Of these, only the physical contains matter in the everyday, sense-perceptible use of the word. The etheric nature is what gives the physical form and shape; the latter decomposes when (as in 'death') this etheric nature leaves it. There are, for example, etheric fingers and hearts, all in flow and movement and much more complicated than the physical organs. Steiner's revelations about the etheric nature have been related to the beginning of energy field theory in modern biology. The etheric nature is the passer on of heredity. The soul nature is the rouser of consciousness; nevertheless, it is seen as part of the body of man. The second of the three main divisions, the soul of man, also consists of three natures. The first subdivided aspect is the 'sentient soul', which is barely distinguishable from the soul nature of the body. Steiner often grouped them together, calling them the 'astral body'. The sentient soul responds through the senses to the stimuli of the outside world; it is also the area of human subjectivity, that is to say, feelings, passions, and instincts. The other two natures of soul, the 'intellectual' and 'spiritual' souls, are implicitly spiritual principles. The intellectual soul arises when thinking is brought to bear on sense perception to change the physical world, thus creating technology and material civilisation. But such thinking, even when unconscious of its origins, is, Steiner states, really spiritual because it is connected with the transcendent individuality of man, the 'I'. The spiritual soul is formally part of the basic soul reality of man, but is implicitly spirit because it is the God within, at the developmental stage when the soul comes to know the 'I'. It is, in Anthroposophy's ethical intuitionism, identified with the good, the true, and inner duty.
After explaining the nature of man Steiner goes on to describe karma in what is perhaps the best example of his translated style. By means of its actions, the human spirit has really brought about its own fate. In a new life it finds itself linked to what it did in a former one. . . . The physical body is subject to the laws of heredity. The human spirit, on the contrary, has to incarnate over and over again; and its law consists in its bringing over the fruits of the former lives into the following ones. The soul lives in the present. But this life in the present is not independent of the previous lives. For the incarnating spirit brings its destiny with it from its previous incarnations. And this destiny determines its life. What impressions the soul will be able to have, what wishes it will be able to have gratified, what sorrows and joys shall grow up for it, with what individuals it shall come into contact - all this depends on the nature of the actions in the past incarnations of the spirit. Those people with whom the soul was bound up in one life, the soul must meet again in a subsequent one, because the actions which have taken place between them must have their consequences. When this soul seeks re-embodiment, those others, who are bound up with it, will also strive towards their incarnation at the same time.
In Anthroposophy death is considered to be a process similar to, but going beyond, sleep. In sleep, if it is dreamless, the astral nature or body and the 'I' separate from the physical and etheric bodies of the sleeper. The former return to replenish the latter and the sleeper awakes. On death, the (formative) etheric as well as the astral body and 'I' are believed to leave the physical body, which thereby disintegrates. Dying, usually at least, is perceived to be gradual and not confined to the physical body alone. The etheric and astral bodies also become 'corpses'. After the death of the physical body, the etheric and astral bodies and the 'I' are joined together. The etheric body, freed from the memory-limiting physical body, is believed to make the past life appear in a vivid, all-embracing simultaneous tableau, then (after a few days) to die. The essence of the memory tableau is retained. Following the death of the etheric body, the next process begins. It takes about as long as the time spent sleeping in the previous incarnation, and involves the purging of the astral body, which then becomes a corpse itself. This takes place in the 'soul-world'. The past incarnation is purged by being lived backwards to the time (at birth or conception?) when spontaneous experience of the 'spirit-world' had been lost. This purging results in a spiritual 'seed', which then grows in the spiritual world of the freed 'I'. Anthroposophically, the soul-world occupies the same planes as the physical world but, as described, has different essences: passions and higher feelings. The forces of 'sympathy' overcome those of 'antipathy', which are concentrated in the two lowest of the seven 'regions' of the soul-world. (The three highest contain no antipathy at all.) In the lowest region, that of 'Burning Desire', cravings form actual beings which to the spiritual eye cause pain and ghastly horror. They are greedy and avaricious, determining the lower sensual impulses and dominating selfish instincts in animals' and men's souls. This purgatory is related to the Hindu Kamaloca. The next region, that of 'Flowing Susceptibility', consists of the external glitter and worthless trifles of life. Its successor, 'Wish Substance', purges wishes. In 'Attraction and Repulsion' there is the special trial of losing the illusion of bodily self. The highest three regions purge lesser goods: that of 'Soul Light' removes sensuous enthusiasm, whether for natural, educational or welfare ideals; 'Active Soul Force' disposes of (among other things) aestheticism; the highest, 'Soul Life', frees man from any lingering attachments to the physical world. The 'I' is progressively freed after the death of the physical body to grow in the spirit-world with a purged and spiritualised memory tableau and astral body. The 'I' grows rather than undergoes purgation. Steiner states that 'to avoid confusion' a careful distinction must be made between what can be purged in the soul-world and what can only be redeemed through the karmic law of reincarnation; but having made the abstract distinction he does not seem to give it any content.
The spirit-world is 'woven out of the substance of which human thought consists'. Steiner tells us that initially it is bewildering: it consists of continuous creative activity expressed, for example, in spiritual colour, taste and sound (hence the Pythagorean 'music of the spheres'). Like the soul-world, it has seven interpenetrating regions; these Steiner refers to by number. The first three are the spiritual forms of what are, on earth, life in the sense-world, feeling and emotion. In the first, it appears, family and those closest to us are rejoined. The fourth region contains the archetypes of the arts, sciences, technology, the state, and of thoughts generally. The fifth consists of the archetype of Wisdom. In the sixth, man will fulfill that which is most in accord with the true being of the world. The seventh leads man to 'Life-kernels' that give him a complete survey of the spirit, soul, and material worlds. The regions of the spirit-world have been working with the 'I' to change the conditions of earth for the next incarnation. After a discarnate period of, it seems, about 500 to 1,000 years, the 'I' is believed to gain a new astral and etheric body and to be guided by spirit-beings towards its choice of mother and father. Usually the rebirth is as the opposite sex to that of the previous incarnation.
Anthroposophists and gnostics assume that the development of each human being reflects the cosmological evolution of the anthropomorphic macrocosm. Within a biologically boundaried frame of reference this has analogies with the ontogenetic/phylogenetic thinking, prevalent around the time of Steiner, in which the evolution of the individual is seen as recapitulating that of the species. From a 'psychologism' perspective (one with the intra-human assumptions of psychology), Steiner's macrocosm will seem to be a projection of his personal biography. For example, the phase of Saturn might be interpreted to correspond to womb-like experiences, Sun to early infancy, and Moon, with its Luciferic rebellion, to the struggles for independence of later infancy (or of adolescence). Early Earth, with its giants, floods and 'overhard' animals, could be considered as the attempt in early childhood to consolidate a consistent consciousness that distinguishes reality from fantasy. Or it might, together with the controlling egotism of Ahriman, be interpreted to represent the fantasies and turmoil of adolescence. The turning point of the cosmos, the descent of Christ, might be understood as a projection of the crucial moment when human nature starts to know itself. The planetary phases of Jupiter, Venus and Vulcan could be seen as future intra-psychic integration.
Beyond the solar system, in starry space or the 'Crystal Heaven', are the transcendent Trinity. Also in their (or its) presence are the three highest Spiritual Hierarchies, the Seraphim, Cherubim and Thrones. The two highest of these seem to have completed their evolution. The Thrones, not yet pure being, have a little further to go. The Crystal Heaven consists of the deeds of evolution that took place before the evolution of our present solar system. The foregoing is highly 'esoteric' knowledge. In a gesture of systemic containment Occult Science discourages the pursuit of origins. A psychologist's perspective would reduce the Crystal Heaven to some intuitive recall of a blissful state of being before the troubles of infancy develop. This could be linked with the Steiner family's sense of a past paradise, their roots in the Lower Austrian forest district north of the Danube, before they experienced the marginalities involved in working for the new railway. More generally, it is another of mankind's frequent myths (the word is used here in the sense of 'not necessarily untrue') on the theme of paradise lost.
From this state of already evolved being, the solar system begins to develop. Saturn and the Crystal Heaven seem ambiguously related to the view of Henri Bergson, Steiner's French contemporary and a philosopher with some parallels to Steiner, who held that there is no eternity standing in contrast to time.
Steiner reveals that there were two Jesuses. Anthroposophically, the main purpose of the Hebrew people from the time of Abraham is to prepare a body that can receive the Christ. This culminates in the Jesus of St Matthew's account. He is ascribed uniquely great wisdom and called the 'Solomon' Jesus. But there is also another Jesus, the 'Nathan' Jesus, who is full of love: the Spirit of the Buddha Gautama fills him with compassion from the heavenly choir. This is the Jesus of St Luke's differing account. At the time of the discourse with the priests at the Jerusalem Temple, the two Jesuses fuse into one, the wisdom-filled Solomon Jesus uniting with the love-filled Nathan Jesus. At this point the 'Cosmos of Wisdom' is preparing to turn into the 'Cosmos of Love': in other words, the second half of the ascending evolution of the solar system is taking over from the first. The Solomon Jesus - other than his prepared body - and the young mother of the Nathan Jesus die. The transformed Jesus is brought up by the relatively old mother of the Solomon Jesus.
In lectures, including a series entitled The Fifth Gospel, Steiner revealed details of the eighteen years between the event in the Temple and the baptism by John. By this later time the transformed Jesus is sufficiently evolved to bequeath his newly spiritualized nature to the archetypal 'I', or Christ himself. It seems Christ does not take himself fully into matter. In orthodox Christianity, this is the docetic heresy (Conventional Christology recently has moved far from this possibility). The temptation is not by one devil alone but by two, Lucifer and Ahriman. Golgotha itself is direct Reality, the turning point of the evolution of the solar system as the Cosmos of Wisdom transforms into the Cosmos of Love.
Christ leaves the body before it dies, hence the residual cry, 'My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?' Because the body is spiritual, the death on the cross is quicker than would be expected from a normal healthy man. The earth begins to shine when Christ's blood flows on it, and is transmuted. Christ becomes the spirit of the earth and also of man's physical and etheric bodies, bounding Ahriman in hell. As Christ's being has never incarnated before, his form disintegrates at once, becoming visible as light. Man's body on the final planetary embodiment of Vulcan is similar. His form is seen by those visiting the sepulchre on the third day, and also by those receiving forty days' subsequent esoteric teaching. The descent of the tongues of fire at Pentecost gives man the possibility of understanding these happenings through his own spiritual efforts.
In describing the Rudolf Steiner movement, frequent references have been made both to gnosticism and the Western 'esoteric tradition' (as gnosis has also been called in the modern period). This background to Anthroposophy is summarised here and in the following chapter in an attempt to outline what is probably the most profound imaginative 'tradition' of the West, influencing Shakespeare, Goethe and W.B. Yeats, amongst many others. Also, unless some recent scholarly doubts are well founded, it was the matrix from which modern science emerged. Through Aleister Crowley and Gerald Gardner, Western gnosis has also, much more immediately, influenced punk, rock, Wicca and the recent revival of witchcraft and paganism...
Gnosticism's origins have been variously linked to a great many causes: for example, the influence of Greek thought on Christianity; an other-worldly shift resulting from worldly misfortune, such as the conquests of Alexander the Great in the fourth century BC; influence by Hindu and Buddhist contemplation; influence from the Iranian area in the early centuries before Christ; probable influence by the mystery religions of late antiquity, such as those of Isis and of Mithras (itself an offshoot from Zoroastrianism). The prophet Zoroaster, somewhere between 550-1500BC, provides a significant and relatively little-publicised part of the cultural backdrop. His cosmology had dualist potential - Zoroastrianism holds that in the beginning there were two wholly independent and opposed twins, one good, the other evil. This was probably connected with the social situation, because Zoroaster was defending the values of settled, agricultural communities (in what is now Iran) against marauders who were perceived as delighting in strife for its own sake. The good spirit was held to have created the world to help in the struggle against, and the eventual victory over, the evil spirit. The birth of Zoroaster was believed to have begun the process whereby evil was to be overthrown. It was later believed that there would be a succession of three saviours, each to be born by the seed of Zoroaster from a virgin after bathing in a lake. It is highly likely that from the many Zoroastrian doctrines about this final victory are derived, through Judaism, the similar Christian teachings on God and the Devil, individual judgement at death, the Last Judgement, resurrection of the body, heaven and hell, and life everlasting. Thus Zoroastrianism seems to have been a seminal factor in the development of Judaeo-Christian orthodoxy. The gnostics generally were alienated from the development of that orthodoxy. The Zoroastrian dualism is that of spiritual good versus spiritual evil. It encourages a positive view of the world of matter, which was created by the good spirit. This is different from the dualism in gnosis, where spirit tends to be identified with liberation, matter with limitation.
Chronologically this chapter follows on from the last. But the late nineteenth and early twentieth century revival of gnostic-like thought forms (in relation to these times, often called ‘esoteric’) was temporally and doctrinally discontinuous with Renaissance Rosicrucianism. The lessened intensity of eighteenth-century Rosicrucianism correlated with the easing of the Catholic/Protestant conflict and the development of science. Though the late nineteenth century revival was a powerful influence on the arts, it was often thought frivolous by intellectuals during this time, the heyday of scientific materialism.
One way of understanding the occurrence of this revival is to relate it to the overriding theme of modernity. To summarise what is wellknown, the radical social innovations associated with the Industrial Revolution and urbanisation coincided, after the publication of Darwin’s challenge to Genesis, with secularism and increasing religious doubt. Perhaps even more significant was the growth of a cultural relativism in which other spiritual and religious traditions became better known. As a result of such comparative religion more and more people were loosened from traditional legitimacies of thought and in perplexity became comparatively religious. The industrially-based middle class was growing rapidly, and with it secular liberal-democracy, with individualist ideals. The demand justified the publication of translations; thus Plato, Plotinus and Proclus became available in English. It seems to have been during the nineteenth-century that the ‘Western esoteric tradition’ came to be thought of as such. This in itself suggests an historical sense, a conscious looking back from what was perceived as a new situation.
Anton Mesmer (1733-1815) conducted spectacles in which, using magnets, he put people into trances; they were frequently cured of intractable complaints. It was later realised that the magnets he used were superfluous and so what had been called ‘animal magnetism’ became ‘hypnotism’. The trances were accompanied by sensations such as knocks and lights. It seems that at least nine journals devoted to magnetism appeared in France alone from 1815 to 1850. Mesmerist societies held meetings and congresses and conferred prizes and awards. 2 This activity prepared the way for the subsequent popularity of spiritualism (see chapter two), one of the first cultural exports from the New World to the Old. From about the 1850s it spread in France and England.
The esoteric fashion died down after the 1914-1918 World War. This coincided with the rise of psychoanalysis and, less specifically, depth-psychology. These latter became partial explanations of reality and sometimes practical paths of salvation. Jung, who was fascinated by gnosticism and alchemy, saw them as deep truths about the ‘psyche’. However, at least in his explanations of his ‘analytical psychology’ to the general public, he emphasised the reductionist interpretation of gnostic cosmology as a psychological projection. In this interpretation, modern scientific cosmology contains the insights of gnosticism: the latter’s truth is seen as experiential and subjectively mystical. The second section of the chapter explores this situation. The third section briefly assesses the influence of Eastern thought on this gnostic revival.
The ‘occult’ revival4 around the turn of the twentieth century is outlined in this section. It is intended to portray some of the context accompanying the life of Rudolf Steiner and to trace immediate influences on the Anthroposophical cosmological structures described in chapter five.
There are other, parallel influences in Romanticism and nineteenth century German culture. To name but one, a distillation by a musical genius of a great many largely German or pan-German cultural sources, Schelling and Hegel among others, the cult of Wagner’s Ring has many underlying gnostic resemblances. Wagner, a central influence in German culture, is rooted in the latter’s early to mid-nineteenth century preoccupations and anticipates much in its apocalyptic mid-twentieth century. In the Ring (reflecting perhaps Schelling’s cosmogony, which Wagner knew),5 an original bliss or innocence turns into a dualism when a dwarf, dwelling in subterranean night and longing for love, is turned away from it because of his repulsive qualities. Redemption of the cosmos from the egoism of the world, symbolised by the curse of power shaping a ring out of innocent gold from the Rhine, only becomes possible because of the consciousness and love displayed by the redeeming figure (Brunnhilde). 6 The world of power and status (Valhalla) is finally transformed into its elements by a consuming fire. Other themes in Wagner have gnostic resonances: for example, the antinomian, redemptive love-death (as in Tristan und Isolde); and the originally pure state of things (as in Parsifal and the later stages of the Ring) which has been almost totally usurped by an alien force, a false underworld.
The late nineteenth century gnostic revival owed much to Eliphas Lévi, the nom de plume of a Frenchman who was a major source for the generation of occultists who lived after him. He experimented with alchemy and may have been the first to connect the Tarot with the Kabbalah. He was familiar with Knorr von Rosenroth’s Kabbala Denudata (c. 1680), a vast compendium of ancient and Lurianic Kabbalism.
Lévi was influenced at one stage by English Rosicrucianism. The Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia (or ‘Soc. Ros.’) was founded in 1866 and still exists. John Yarker was a member of the Soc. Ros.’s Manchester college. He later founded Masonic lodges, including the lodge which Steiner led within the Ordo Templi Orientis from 1906 to the outbreak of war. Bulwer Lytton was the Soc. Ros.’ Grand Patron in 1871; his Rosicrucian novel Zanoni had, in about 1840, anticipated the coming revival.
The Kabbala Denudata was translated by MacGregor Mathers (as Kabbala Unveiled). It seems to have been a strong influence on The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which was founded in 1888.
Alchemy, astrology and Tarot were also important in this magicking movement. The Golden Dawn member was initiated through a series of grades corresponding to Gold-und-Rosenkreuz Freemasonry. Part of the ritual consisted of the reading out of an account, based on the Rosicrucian Fama, of the life of Christian Rosenkreuz. The first eight English Anthroposophists became so when they seceded from the Golden Dawn in 1912, after having listened to Steiner lecture in London. The rise of the eastwards-looking Theosophical Society (described at the beginning of chapter two) occurred as part of a wider ‘esoteric’ revival. In contrast to the Golden Dawn, Theosophy renounced magic.
There can be no doubt that Theosophy’s karma and much of its cosmology derive from Eastern traditions. Blavatsky and Besant seem to have been considerably influenced by Mahayana and Tibetan Buddhism and by Hinduism. Much of the terminology is certainly from India; thus there is ‘jnana yoga’ rather than gnosis (though as stated earlier the two words have a common Indo-European root), and use of words such as ‘rishi’ and ‘avatar’. Members see Theosophy as more Eastern in spirit than Western; however, the basic structures seem also to have analogies with Syrian-Egyptian gnosis. In the first four years, from 1875-1879, the core influence on Theosophy was Western. Indeed, in Isis Unveiled, which was published in 1877, Blavatsky stated that reincarnation is as rare as a two-headed infant. Theosophists admit these facts but explain that the public was not yet ready for the full revelation and that, in dismissing reincarnation, Blavatsky had a specialised meaning.
A bequest by a Baron Palme, at whose funeral Theosophists sang Orphic hymns, was used for Theosophical relocation to India. In 1879 the headquarters were settled at Bombay and in 1882 at Madras. From this time through to the 1890s, despite damaging allegations of fraud, membership expanded dramatically. The revelation came increasingly to be expressed in Indian terms. It was imparted in 1888 through the eagerly awaited publication of The Secret Doctrine. This consists of Stanzas from the ‘Book of Dyzan’, which Blavatsky supposedly received in an extra sensory way from Tibetan ‘Masters’, and her commentaries on them.
In 1893, W.E. Coleman, who was preparing an expose of Theosophy as a whole, published a painstaking analysis of Blavatsky’s sources.8 This gives the appearance of being objective, though his motive in writing it was probably personal. He concluded that The Secret Doctrine is ‘permeated with plagiarisms and is in all its parts a rehash of other books. ... I find in this “oldest book of the world” [the ‘Book of Dyzan’] statements copied from nineteenth-century books.’ Apparently, in Theosophy’s beginnings, most was derived from Eliphas Lévi. A large part of the revelation came from spiritualism (Blavatsky had been a medium) and Western esoteric sources. Hinduism later came to constitute ‘one of the larger portions’, with Wilson’s Vishnu Purana contributing most of the Hindu terminology. Buddhism was not so important as Hinduism, and, if Coleman is correct, the Western influences on Theosophy have often been underestimated.
The Darwinian theory that humans and animals have common ancestors has truth Theosophically: spiritual monads incarnate as human beings after having been animals on a previous globe. Each monad, which becomes individual at about the human stage, has to reincarnate (perhaps 800 or so times) into each of the seven globes of each chain. Within each globe there are seven time-periods, known as ‘races’, which replace each other through continental cataclysms. Atlantis, the last, fourth race, lingered on (in the form of the island described by Plato) until it sank about 11,500 years ago. We are at present in the fifth race.
In the arc of return there is increasing unity. In chain five the animal kingdom becomes human; they are followed by the plant kingdom on chain six and the mineral kingdom on chain seven. At the end, the seven elements become unified in their relationship to perfected consciousness.
The reduction of social reality to spirit is a hazard for the Anthroposophical cosmological structures defined in chapter five. ... It also suggests that the distinctively beneficial effects of Anthroposophy may not be achievable without this reductionism.
It is not easy, after induction into Anthroposophy, to see it from many different perspectives at the same time. 'Openness' can consist of identifying with Steiner's life and thought as faithfully as possible. The argument pro hominem is deployed: biography, implicitly if not explicitly, becomes hagiography. The rainbow-like social being of the movement seems to confirm everything he revealed. It tends to encourage a progressively developing Anthroposophical identity, in which the gaining of knowledge itself becomes an act of commitment. One has to belong in order to know what happens in the elite School of Spiritual Science: to belong, it is necessary to take responsibility for Anthroposophy. However, there are signs that Anthroposophists are becoming increasingly open to outside perspectives now that those who heard Steiner are no longer around to speak of the experience.
Anthroposophical reality is maintained by the movement's social organisation because this is based on Steiner's revelation. From within one aspect, such as eurythmy, or bio-dynamics, or a study group on Occult Science, there radiates reverence for its wide-ranging whole. To see it entire from a spiritual point of view would be for one to become reality itself, to realize one's spiritual individuality through Intuition. No ordinarily modest Anthroposophist could envisage such a situation in this incarnation. To approach this visionary state it is seen as necessary to take responsibility first, perhaps by participating in the research of a section of the School of Spiritual Science, and so sharing in its knowledge of one specific aspect of Anthroposophy as a whole. With growing commitment, thoughts are increasingly unlikely to occur if they are outside Anthroposophical boundaries.
The non-absolute quality of Steiner as a man influenced by the varying currents of his times is suggested by humanly understandable discrepancies. Steiner opposed esoteric secrecy but later set up his own closed circle. He stated that his revelation should be read before trying his meditative exercises yet denied that such reading would affect the experience itself. He stressed the need to think for oneself, yet there is a taboo against coherent intellectual analysis of his cosmology, this being considered 'Ahrimanic'. Anthroposophy's fit with Western esotericism and turn of the century German culture has to be interpreted as confirmation of Steiner's world outlook, for it is considered 'Ahrimanic' to suggest that the doctrines he revealed were in part at least conditioned by his time.
From another point of view these enclosures can be seen as illusory. If the revelation is objectively true and at some level known by everyone, reading about it can only be a superficial influence. The privacy for the meditations and other activities of the School of Spiritual Science is likewise not fundamental, but merely a temporary protective filter. Indeed, the gnostic idea that that which spiritually is of the nature of gold cannot be contaminated by mud tends to be perpetuated within Anthroposophy through a highly idealistic understanding of, and expectation from, the movement's social forms.
The movement's spiritual absolutes are also maintained by a certain licence on small matters. It has been possible to think that Steiner was incorrect in some minor areas of his spiritual research, as long as more is not threatened. His imputation of European seasons world-wide is clearly a slip. Here an Anthroposophist can identify with him as a fallible person like oneself. But this cannot extend to examining whether the asymmetricality of his revelation -- because the coming of Christ is slightly off centre -- was the result of his acceptance of Blavatsky's system; this kind of cultural analysis is too disturbing to be likely to emerge from within the movement's social rainbow. Assimilation is also used. Other knowledge can be syncretised in a non-threatening way, as in making depth-psychology apply to soul only, not spirit. Rudolf Steiner's thought can also be confirmed through being further developed by others, as with astrosophy and most of the applications.
Steiner insisted that his language was unimportant and that his intention was to convey the spiritual reality itself, not to give a linguistic illusion of the transcendent. This raises an issue about the epistemological and ontological status of his revelation: if all his language is completely unrelated to spiritual reality, his doctrines concerning karma, rebirth, Saturn, Sun, Moon and so on might just as well be replaced by the thirty-nine articles of the Church of England. How is one to know where his language is a mere metaphor, a pointer towards the ineffable, and where, however necessarily imperfectly, it has some literalism in it?
It is almost impossible to pin the revelation down to specific facts (let alone refute it) because its words are justified by Anthroposophists in terms of leading one towards experience of spirit. However, its statements may also be seen as related to material facts. The result is an ambiguous position: for example, it is difficult to know whether 'Atlantis' describes a geographical landscape as well as a metaphysical one. Neither Steiner's statements nor anything in the Anthroposophical belief system provide internal rules which enable one to know when the words connect literally with observable matter and ordinary concepts, and when and how they do not.
As has been seen, the gnostic cosmos is one which seeks the spiritual and is ambivalent about the material world, unlike Protestantism, where commercial success in the world has been linked in the minds of believers with divine grace. The blind spot in the world views subscribed to by intuitive idealists is likely to be the material world, just as the self-legitimations of those who identify with the material world are likely to be pragmatic.
A further point, independent of the question of in which senses the spiritual dimension exists, is whether people vary in their capacity to have spiritual experience. Variation in predisposition is independent of the debates about whether spiritual reality is nothing but a social or linguistic construction, or whether it is outside the skin as well as inside.
It has already been suggested that it is likely, beyond the influence of the social, that some people are more predisposed to experience the spiritual than others. This argument is not based on the metaphysical belief in the grace of God as an independent factor, on ideas of karma, or on gnostic elitism. It derives from biological analogy.
Variation in predisposition within the population as a whole is not typically treated as an independent variable in sociological explanations of spiritual conversion, whether this is at the level of groups or of individuals. If spiritual energies are seen as a significant independent factor they are treated as a constant; if not, they are implicitly reduced to social factors. Yet, as in the case of other sense organs, it is more reasonable than not to believe that spiritual receptivity does vary between individuals.
As has been seen, gnosticism and, to a lesser extent, mysticism are essentially movements away from the constraints of social conditioning (this behaviourist word seems appropriate in this context), and towards the spiritual. Hence an interpretation of them in terms of social organisation has a hollow, superficial ring. It is a mistake to deny the very considerable influence of culture on contemplative experience; but it is equally mistaken to implicitly strip the spiritual factor from this experience. Gnosticism and mysticism are distorted by the usual 'scientific' practice of considering social factors alone.
Furthermore, otherwise excellent sociological studies often step over the ill-defined border between not concerning oneself with the spiritual and subtly denying its power. ... As already suggested, if the methods of the sociology of knowledge are applied to social science itself, the implicit denial of the spiritual can be traced to its origins in positivism and the Enlightenment.
The two main periods of Western gnostic emergence have coincided with the impact of the 'early modern' and 'modern' stages, that is in the Renaissance/Reformation and in the late nineteenth-century. The gnostic responses seem to have been minority reactions embracing radical spiritual transcendence at times when orthodox consciousness was caught up in cosmological conflicts. At the same time, modern gnosticisms have incorporated the Protestant cultivation of individual spirituality through emphasising the developmen of spiritual individuality.
This need for spiritual union is perhaps reflected in the long cosmogonies and eschatologies (what Hans Jonas has termed the historical sense) of gnostic systems. It will be suggested in the next chapter that they reveal how emerged the social has become, and that many consciousnesses experience that emergence as alienation. The perceived path back, whether through magical passwords or Steiner's Imagination, Inspiration and Intuition, is correspondingly arduous.
This chapter attempts to interpret the timing of Western gnostic outbreaks more closely and to make some sense of the patterns of occurrence of contemporary gnostic (or 'esoteric') and mystical cults.
Gnosticism, Catholic orthodoxy and Neoplatonism The mystery religions of the ancient world reflected the increasing complexity of consciousness and society. Bellah understands them as transitions between 'archaic' and 'historic' religion. The participants were less and less locals and more and more educated cosmopolitans with the means to travel. Presumably those who were not just going through a conventional rite of passage were seeking release from the world through spiritual experience.
In gnostic systems, unlike the mysteries described by Lucius Apuleius, cosmogony was no longer used to legitimise the social order. On the contrary, it came to have the inverted function of vilifying the phenomenal cosmos. Cosmogony was necessary, for otherwise the experience of being trapped in the world could not be explained; it legitimized rejection of the world. The creation of the world becomes tragedy, the fall of spirit into matter; the only hope is the possibility of salvation, sometimes only for a spiritual elite, through gnosis. Cosmogony without eschatology thus becomes a situation for despair, not a this-worldly creation which calls for joyful celebration.
That the 'trap' of the emerged social order -- and so, it might be presumed, of the gnostic's own accreted consciousness -- was experienced as extensive is also suggested by the many micro/ macrocosmic correspondences in gnostic thought. Through the adoption and development of Babylonian astrology, the extent to which the 'inside' corresponds with constraining planetary influences on the 'outside' became a highly discriminated, specialised body of knowledge. Furthermore, escape from the adverse Archons depended on correct timing. Salvation is a developmental process. Those called to gnosis, or intuitive awareness of the structures of reality, can only experience their escape from the hard world through an arduous change of consciousness. ... This leads to a complex, alienated state of fallenness. Salvation can only come from further movement forwards. Gnosis is a more self-aware, insight-giving state than the one she left behind. The potential for dynamism makes this Syrian-Egyptian pattern qualitatively the prototype of modern gnosticisms which stress the development of conscious individuality.
The victory of the Augustinian church and Catholic orthodoxy was, as has been seen, an intolerant one. It represented the interests of the urban many, not the world-despair of a spiritually-inclined relative few. Gnosticism was suppressed, not just voluntarily abandoned. This churchly barricade of canon and dogma has perhaps played an ambivalent part in the survival of Catholicism. It claimed a monopoly of salvation: objective grace through its institutionality became all. ... The Christian emphasis on belief as a boundary has perhaps made possible the modern liberal idea that everyone should think for themselves.
The anti-gnostic development that started with orthodox canon and dogma eventually led to the events of the Reformation and, through Protestantism, to modernity. It has enabled the Church to survive for an enormous stretch of time, but at the price of schisms from its carefully controlled position. In the cosmological crises of the Renaissance and Reformation, and of modernity, the development of epistemological individualism left Catholic institutionality behind. At these two (early modern and modern) breakthrough points there have been pronounced Western spiritual reactions away from the world. The availability of gnostic revelations and the spiritual syntheses around them attracted many during these times of cosmological crisis.
The survival of Catholicism may be partly due to its tolerance towards some kinds of contemplative experience. ... Though this unitive Christian mysticism has often been in an ambiguous relationship with orthodoxy, it seems to be just about tolerated, if only because -- unlike in gnosticism -- there is no ultimate rejection of the world. As a result, mystics can accept the institutional claims of the Church even if at the same time they criticize it for lacking the right spirit. ... Mysticism of all kinds may have functioned as a safety-valve, drawing off potential rejection of the Church as an institution.
During the Renaissance and the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries cosmological crisis has been accompanied by an increase in neo-gnostic affiliation.
At those times in the Christian West when cosmological orthodoxy has not been much questioned, the spiritually inclined can genuinely be mystics more or less co-existing within the church, but at times of cosmological questioning alternative templates are more likely to be sought. The questioning of the Renaissance was partly the result of the new availability of gnostic texts, so this alternative template itself helped produce the questioning. The gnostic vision with its astral magic and micro-macrocosmic links not only offers, as has been described, an alternative cosmology, but also has its own built-in path of salvation.
The conceptual distinction between mysticism within an unchallenged Christian consensus, and cosmological crisis requiring analternative spiritual template, may be difficult to apply in particular instances. The ambiguities of any one person's experience may make it unclear, for example, how far they are influenced by cosmological crisis. The intention here is to apply this distinction at a more general, structural level in order to describe cultural trends.
The recorded, retrospectively termed 'esoteric tradition' seems to have started with the arrival of the Corpus Hermeticum in Florence in 1460. Availability and contemporary plausibility as a stock of knowledge seems to have been a precondition for the numerically significant spread of Western gnosis. In the case of the Cathars the social stock of knowledge appears largely to have been communicated by word of mouth and by personal example. The availability of gnosis since has largely been through the written word, and the public exposed to it has gradually increased with the spread of printing and literacy.
... Hermeticism -- when it came to be called Rosicrucianism -- was increasingly identified with the breakthrough to early modernity or Protestantism. After this strife it lost its creative impetus, but not before -- some think -- being the direct progenitor of modern science. However, the spiritual movement towards a new synthetic gnosis, despite its cultural importance, was only a minority one. For numerous others the tension was experienced in the more mundane and bloody French wars of religion and Thirty Years' War. Rosicrucianism's cosmological synthesis was an aspect of the onward thrust of Western consciousness towards, as it turned out, greater rationality, materialism and emergence.
The eighteenth-century consensus, the cosmology of the deus ex machina, had its surface ruffled by esoteric ripples, but there were no waves comparable to Rosicrucianism, or to the occultism of the late nineteenth-century. Western gnosticism was influential mystically on Romanticism and Idealist philosophy, but no longer was it so seriously taken as an undiluted cosmology.
Mesmerism and spiritualism provided relief from the boundaries inherent in nineteenth-century Protestant orthodoxy. In contrast to formality and repression, there was the exciting encounter with split-off aspects of the self, and also with supposed spirits of the dead. This seems to have functioned as a safety valve for the pressure of conventional practices, such as church-bound worship.
The spiritual reaction away from late nineteenth-century rigidities became more pronounced, more gnostically inclined to reject philosophical materialism, when to a large section of the middle class there seemed to be a conflict between 'Christianity' and 'science' (identified with Darwinian materialism). Many felt an acute conflict at the level of cosmology and some solved it through gnosis or 'spiritual science'. At this stage the breakthrough to modernity seems to have been making its greatest intellectual impact on the increasingly educated, urban middle classes.
Systems such as Anthroposophy, however, did not abandon the increased awareness in the Protestant West of people as separate individuals with the self becoming more and more discriminated. ... Contemporary individualism, with its materialist connotations, tended to be reflected in an ascending 'esoteric' individuality. ... In turn of the twentieth-century gnosticisms in Europe, the development of an emerged social order -- and even the contemporary materialistic individualism -- tended to be seen optimistically: for as a result the self has become discriminated, and so is available for the free ascent towards spiritual individuality.
This spiritual individuality is located within the relatively high social complexity of Anthroposophy, which is considerable compared to other 'cults'. (There is no attempt here to define 'cult' inclusively, if such a thing is possible. In this book it is used to distinguish non-church-related spiritual/religious identities from 'sects', which typically deviate from mainstream churches on relatively few, though fiercely defended, points.) Cults generally appear to lack stable, continuing social institutions. Anthroposophy's established, post-Second World War stage seems to be exceptional. The genuine Anthroposophist, whether a teacher, secretary or farmer, is in part defined in terms of trying to infuse the work with the intuitive Anthroposophical totality. As has been suggested in chapter four, sense-based rationality is subordinated to one of spirit even in the performance of specific tasks.
The great increase in literacy and the book market during the nineteenth century made gnosticisms available as never before, especially towards its close. Connected with this is the move towards populism which first became apparent with the Christian Rosenkreuz craze in the early seventeenth-century. The scholarly were generally repelled by Blavatsky. However, Theosophy attracted intuitive minds through and despite its exotic terminology, occultism and aura of fraud, and, as in the cases of the poets 'A.E.' and W.B. Yeats, it appealed to intuitives of a very high order. Anthroposophy, in some contrast, has been described as 'the intellectual's esotericism'. As already described, Steiner in The Philosophy of Freedom prioritised thinking. The contemporary expansion of scholarly knowledge about non-Christian religions was accompanied by loosely gnostic syntheses. In London just before the First World War, Theosophy, the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia (or Soc. Ros.), the Golden Dawn and even Anthroposophy were available.
Another tendency, often coinciding with the above and in line with the move towards democratisation of the spirit mentioned earlier, has been to enroll a volume of members. As stated in chapter eight, one Rosicrucian organisation alone, the Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis (the 'Soc. Ros.'), had a total of about 60,000 European and American members enrolled in the mid-1970s, more than twice the number of Anthroposophists then enrolled. Popular gnosticism is likely to be far more numerous than Anthroposophical affiliation and influence suggests, even though those strongly influenced by Anthroposophy are a much larger number than the formal membership figures. Thus Anthroposophy appears to be the most intellectually and socially differentiated and distinctive form of contemporary Western 'individual-gnosticism', but not the most popular gnostic system.
The structures implicit in Anthroposophy (here called the Syrian-Egyptian pattern) have in practice been taken in this book as an ideal-type, because the focus has been on Anthroposophy. There is a good question how well this ideal-type covers modern gnosticisms which are non-Anthroposophical. Pending further research, generalisation from this ideal-type is hypothetical. The main theoretical distortion is probably that gnoses such as Theosophy are less thought-through than Steiner's revelation, so that a looser ideal-type may fit them better. ...
A claim is made here that Anthroposophy, though less numerous than contemporary esotericisms such as the Soc. Ros., the outreach of Gurdjieff and the influence of the dualistic aspects of the 1960s counter-culture, is qualitatively more developed. This claim rests upon Anthroposophy's differentiation, both in terms of the revelation and its embedded community. However, esotericism, broadly interpreted, also seems to have been important amongst, in overall Western terms, relatively uneducated and non-privileged people whose numbers are well in excess of Anthroposophy, The Soc. Ros. and the outreach of Gurdjieff combined. The experience and meanings of such people might seem to be devalued if Anthroposophy is taken as the model for the ideal-typical benchmark. While Anthroposophy should not necessarily be dismissed as a starting point for hypothesis formation, it should also be borne in mind that it is at the elite end of the spectrum. It seems to have few social overlaps with and to be much less widespread than Aleister Crowley's influence on the punk approach of Johnny Rotten, the kabbalism popularised by Madonna, or the neo-pagan, earth-centred practises of Wicca. The analysis linked to Anthroposophy might help locate other movements in terms of broad cultural context, but at the level of the individual, 'structures' or any other analytical framework should not be allowed to take anything away from the richness, and other often paradoxical qualities, of personal experience.
Similarly, the distinction made in this book between 'mysticism' and what has been extrapolated here as 'gnosticism' (also termed 'esotericism' in the modern period), has also depended for its clarity on having studied the highly differentiated example of Anthroposophy. In summary, the ideal-type of gnosis (whether Syrian-Egyptian or Manichean) is described as dualist with a strong urge for liberation from the bonds of matter and the world. This typically involves micro and macrocosmic thinking and elaborate cosmogonic myth. The ideal-type of mysticism is described in contrast as either supportive of, or as a safety valve to, prevailing culture. It involves the spiritual or emotional but is not dualist, and it may be minimalist in its specific supporting cosmology. Its myth may well be internalised: that is, seen as true at the level of biography without any application to the world outside human skin.
The analysis has been Eurocentric in that the history of gnosis has been described in terms of its two main manifestations in the European Renaissance and the Western world around the turn of the twentieth-century. In summary, the occurrence of gnosis has been understood to correlate with cosmological turmoil which prevents mysticism sufficing as a homeostatic solution. Gnosis at these times has provided a necessary extra factor of cosmological synthesis. Occurrences of gnosticism outside the European context have been outside the scope of this analysis, though Anthroposophy is no longer almost entirely Western.
The modern world has frequently been described as 'secularised'. This difficult concept with its many complex ramifications is often condensed into meaning the decline of religion. It is suggested here that religion (inclusively defined) has not so much declined as fragmented. A common polarisation has been between self-conscious fundamentalisms which avoid the perceived atheistic abyss of (post-)modernity, and mysticisms which support adaptation to global technological dynamism with its social opportunities and disintegrations. Since the First World War Anthroposophy has co-existed in an environment which has been more favourable to easy-going mysticisms than to approaches which are perceived as dualist and totally enveloping and challenging. It has done well to thrive. Without its community it is doubtful whether it could have.
Over a very long period standard thinking in the West reversed itself. From a pre-Catholic position in which gnosticism and Neoplatonism were acceptable, orthodoxy became more and more defined; it developed from Catholicism through to Protestantism and then to post-Christian modernity. Around the end of the nineteenth century, the new orthodoxy of scientific materialism seemed to explain life away, depriving it of its enchantment. To many then both materialist science and the conventional religion it opposed seemed like aspects of the relentless planetary fate which was the dread of the gnostics. Since then, pure science has become less materialist but, in part through the engine of global consumerism, the practical social consequences of experiential materialism and cultural relativism have increased. Man's very humanity seems to have been contracted 'to a self imprisoned in its selfhood'.5 There have been two prominent reactions to this situation: the fundamentalist and the immanentist.
Far from principally reflecting negatives such as alienation and anomie, and being a dependent and temporary response to secularisation, the milieu of many new religious movements seems well adapted to express man's spiritual nature in a complementary contrast to so-called 'post-modern' circumstances. The survival characteristics have been summarised as immanence rather than transcendence, pragmatism in relation to religious authority and practice, syncretism and tolerance, monism rather than dualism, a lack of total social immersion (i.e. compatibility with the social order around us), an inner-worldly mysticism compatible with scientific orientations, and reliance on experience.11 Excepting perhaps the last criterion, Anthroposophy looks different.
It has transcendence at its core as well as immanence, a cosmological syncretism based on Steiner's revelation more than experimental individualism, a claimed monism which from the outside appears dualistic, and through the 1923 Laying of the Foundation Stone (see chapter two), a total, challenging social foundation requiring commitment. Unlike Anthroposophy and other gnosticisms, many mysticisms imported from the East and adapted to the West meet the Zeitgeist described by the above criteria well. Many have caught the spirit of the moment and so have recruited more numerously than Anthroposophy.
Western gnosticism was in general decline from about the 1920s until the counter-culture of the 1960s. This may well be connected with post-war pessimism, the development of depth-psychology and the waning of scientific materialism into the ambiguity of the 'new physics'. The latter is seen by some scientists themselves as the conceptual complement of pantheistic experience. Transcendentally spiritual itself, Western gnosis in the twentieth-century has been increasingly exposed to a modernity whose mysticism tends to exalt matter. As the conflict between scientific materialism and (in Europe) Christian fundamentalism has faded towards the end of the twentieth-century, and the new science has presented a mysterious universe to the imagination (however conceptual it is at the level of mathematics), cosmological reaction towards spirit has been less and less called for. Nineteenth-century materialism seems to have become reflected in the twenty-first century lived experience of consumerism and technology, not in its cosmological thought. The decline of gnosis (Anthroposophy excepted) from its pre-First World War peak may well be closely connected with the lack of clear-cut cosmological conflict within orthodoxy, which seems to have taken doubt up into itself.
With the coming of the counter-culture of the Western 1960s there was a return of interest in gnosis, but this seems to have been an aspect of a diffuse interest in immanent mysticism rather than a revival of transcendence specifically. Taking a long-term moving average, Anthroposophy has been recruiting slowly but steadily. This is against the flow, given that the post-World War One Zeitgeist described above seems to favour mysticisms more than gnosis. The reasons for this expansion, as well as probably having much to do with Steiner's social foundation of Anthroposophy in 1923 and the movement's embedded community, may also include the model of Steiner as a paternal alternative (for an illustration of this see the appendix 'Some Ways In'). Also, its continuing success should be interpreted in the light of increased 'market share' given the decline of its main alternative, Theosophy.
Looking ahead, assuming Anthroposophy continues to develop roots in Asia, Africa, and South America, its implicit Eurocentric stance, and also that of this book, will increasingly be open to question. This could increase tensions between the centre and the periphery. Also, it remains to be seen how climate change and the rise of concern about environmental catastrophe will relate to Anthroposophy. In the face of the major uncertainties likely to accompany this huge global threat, cosmologies with spirit/matter dualisms may benefit, especially those which, like Anthroposophy, are environmentally friendly.
Anthroposophy lives within people: it is not a mere abstraction. It could be misleading just to describe it as a metaphysical system, or solely at the level of social organisation. This appendix gives an inevitably subjective impression of some of those who have been committed to it. It attempts to generalise about how a few individuals became Anthroposophists. To help the reader see through some of my subconscious distortions in carrying out this broadly inductivist research, I have included certain personal reactions. The account which follows focuses on a particular group, drawing on biographical interviews with eighteen members in London around the mid-1970s. The eighteen were not a representative sample of Anthroposophists as a whole, and this should be constantly borne in mind. Also, much has changed since.
Thus my access was at one particular time and through one slice (among many others) of Anthroposophical reality.
In addition to the uniqueness of each, there appeared to be some common patterns which are the focus here. All can be seen to have begun from an original 'normality' in ignorance of Rudolf Steiner. Then some generalisations seem possible concerning the convergence on Anthroposophy of their hearts, minds, and everyday lives. At the time of our meeting they generally seemed to me to be identified with something other-worldly, beyond appearances. At the end of the chapter, partly drawing on the experience of the eighteen, suggestions are made as to who is most likely to be converted.