Anthroposophy and the Future

Towards 3.1 (Fall 1987): 32-35, 49-50

Old men are notorious for an objectionable habit of indulging in personal reminiscence whenever they get the chance. If I seem at the outset to be succumbing to that weakness, I hope you will have patience and accept my assurance that I only begin with reminiscence, because I really believe it is the best way of clothing with some substance a certain historical parallel or analogy, which has been forcing itself on my attention more and more in the last few years; and which I feel is highly relevant to the topic which I have chosen. It is a parallel I have already hinted at in one or two places, but only in passing, and not (I imagine) so as to make any lasting impression.

Most people here will know of the historical periods recognized in Anthroposophy as characterizing what Rudolf Steiner called the whole post-Atlantean epoch, but perhaps I had better just remind you of two of them. I am concerned only with our own age and the one before it, that is to say, the 5th post-Atlantean age beginning in the 15th century A.D., and the one just before it, the 4th, which extended from approximately the 8th century B.C. to the 15th A.D. And now for the reminiscences.

I first came into contact with Anthroposophy about sixty years ago, and it happened that at that time I had been reading a little – a very little – Aristotle. At a time when Rudolf Steiner was pretty new to me, and I was still trying to make up my mind about him, I remember very clearly an occasion when I was walking away from a meeting with the late George Adams (George Kaufmann as he then was), and I tried to say something about the general impression I was gaining of Steiner, as a thinker among other thinkers who have left their mark on the history of the mind. And I found myself comparing him with Aristotle. For this reason: I had been struck with the way in which Aristotle not only built up a system, or let us say a cosmology, but he built it on the foundation of a language, a terminology, which he himself had first established in his earlier writings (on logic, metaphysics, etc.). I believe I suggested that the difference between him and other philosophers was something like the difference between an ordinary wheeled vehicle and a track-laying one. In “caterpillar traction,” as it is sometimes called (tanks are the most familiar example), the vehicle first lays a bit of smooth track on rough ground and then rolls forward over it. To some extent in his earlier philosophical writings, but more especially in the book Theosophy, it seemed to me that Steiner had done much the same thing, and then, when he went on not only to Occult Science, an Outline but also to the whole almost crushing wealth of detailed description that we find in the lecture-cycles, he was always advancing on his own foundation, on tracks he himself had laid.

I am afraid I still haven’t quite finished with reminiscences. For the last four or five years on and off, I have been engaged in editing Coleridge’s Lectures on the History of Philosophy for the series called the Collected Coleridge. In them Coleridge covers the ground from Pythagoras and the pre-Socratics to the then modern German idealist philosophie of Kant, Fichte, Schelling, etc. That is to say, he covers the ground in Western philosophy. He knew very little of oriental philosophy and, I think it must be said, thoroughly misinterpreted what he did know. Anyway the work involved drew my attention in a new way to certain features in the history of ideas in the West. In anthroposophical terms (of which of course he knew nothing) Coleridge was dealing with the evolution of consciousness throughout the 4th post-Atlantean age and the early centuries of the 5th. I shall leave out what he has to say about the post-Renaissance philosophy and concern myself only with the history of philosophy in the 4th post-Atlantean age, that is from its beginnings down to the 15th century A.D. As you will know, the first half of that epoch and the second half were very different from each other. You have, to begin with, Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle and their followers, with the different schools into which they developed – say, the classical period; and then, after something like a gap, you have the development that is usually referred to as Scholastic philosophy; say the medieval period. These are unquestionably the two outstanding landmarks. But the interregnum between these two sharp sub-divisions, if I may so call them, of the 4th age (the period from a century or two after the birth of Christ) has its own distinctive feature, which deserves attention. In philosophy it was essentially without originality, one which (with the exception perhaps of the Neo-Platonists) contributed nothing new, but which lived by expounding, commenting on and quarrelling about the philosophies of the classical period. The Stoics and Epicureans were the two sects that attracted the widest following, and which are those best known to all but scholars and specialists. But there were any number of other little schools, many of which are referred to by Cicero in his philosophical writings: Platonists (Academics, as they were called, some of the New and some of the Old Academy), Peripatetics (who followed Aristotle), Cynics, Cyrenaics, Pythagoreans, Neo-Pythagoreans, Neo-Platonists and others. Added to which you have the territory between philosophy and religion being invaded, from Egypt and elsewhere in the East, by cults and mystery-cults such as Mithraism.

It was the period of what Coleridge, and indeed other historians of philosophy, have called “eclecticism.” The word really means “choosing.” You chose some one of many schools, or, if you were yourself a philosopher, you picked and chose one doctrine from this predecessor and another from that and tried to fit them all together. There was variety everywhere and steadiness nowhere.

The 4th post-Atlantean age was the age of the Intellectual Soul, a phase of the human psyche which Rudolf Steiner has described from many points of view: spiritual, psychological and historical. One way of characterizing the Intellectual Soul, by contrast with the Consciousness Soul, which is the phase on which our own age concentrates, would be to say that there the individual human intelligence is not yet detached, isolated, separate from the Cosmic Intelligence out of which it originates in the way that characterizes the Consciousness Soul. And, since it is also the Cosmic Intelligence out of which the phenomenal world originates, the Consciousness Soul loses all sense of affinity with the outer, material world. René Descartes gave full expression to the philosophical basis of the Consciousness Soul when he divided the world into “extended substance” on the one hand and “thinking substance” on the other. The human mind feels itself detached from, and set over against, the material world, because it no longer has any inkling of their common origin. We today are less likely to forget the many evil consequences of the onset of materialism than we are to remember that it has also been an essential step in the whole evolution of consciousness. It is not only that without it there would have been no such thing as modern science. Without it there would have been no fully self-conscious, and potentially free, human souls.

Rudolf Steiner saw this detachment of the individual from the Cosmic Intelligence, not as a surgical severance, but as the end-product of a process of a very different sort. He saw it as the descent, or the incarnation, of the Cosmic Intelligence into the human intelligence. I am not familiar with nearly as much of the vast corpus of anthroposophical literature as I would wish, but you will find the medieval phase of that process was very fully expounded in one or two of the Karma lectures he gave. What I want to emphasize here is that it is impossible to enter with any sort of sympathy into the intricacy, the intimate detail, of that process, especially in its final stages, without some degree of familiarity with the last of the three periods into which I have suggested the age of the Intellectual Soul may be divided, that is to say, without rather more than a cursory glance at the age of Scholasticism. To watch, for instance, the way in which Scholastic philosophy fastened on Aristotle’s psychology, his nous poietikos and nous pathetikos – that is active and passive intelligence respectively – and above all, how translating it into their intellectus agens and intellectus possibilis, the Schoolmen poked their way into the most intricate minutiae of the relation between the two – expounding how the passive intellect takes over, as it were, or unites with the active intellect, in a sense becomes it in the act of knowing and then maybe to follow, in the general development of Scholasticism, the gradual shift of its center of gravity from Realism (which was the old name for what is now called Idealism) to Nominalism (which is virtually indistinguishable from what was reintroduced centuries with the brand-new name of Logical Positivism) – to observe and reflect on all that is almost to behold the descent of the Cosmic Intelligence into the personal intelligence taking place before one’s very eyes.

During the last century, or century and a half, there has been one significant change in the academic, or fashionable, attitude towards the history of ideas. Reputable historians of philosophy, and indeed of science, no longer share Francis Bacon’s amused contempt for the Scholastic period. They no longer see the Schoolmen as a huddle of word-spinning fuddy-duddies, arguing interminably about how many angels can stand on the point of a needle. On the contrary it is realized that they hold an important position in that history. If you care to follow them into that precise – if you like ultra-precise – thinking they pursued with so much energy, the care for example with which they distinguished from one another equivocal, and therefore confusing, meanings attached by custom to the same word (what Coleridge was later to call “desynonymizing”), you discover that they were really engaged in creating the language, and thus the precision instruments of thought, which made possible the scientific revolution and the post-Renaissance mind-set. Without Scholasticism there could have been no Descartes. A major function of the Age of Philosophy (as in this context we can fairly name the 4th age) was to clear the ground and dig the foundations of the Age of Science.

There is one more outstanding feature of Scholasticism to which I must draw your attention before leaving it behind. I gave as an example of their contribution the way the Schoolmen dealt with an important concept to be found in the psychology of Aristotle. This was no accident. We may realize how integral it was to the mental atmosphere of the whole age if we reflect on the following fact. Scholasticism extended its operations over a large area of Europe, including the Southwest, into which Islam had made deep inroads; and there was deep-rooted division between Arab and Christian philosophers. It remains true nevertheless that the antagonists on both sides of that “iron curtain” were at one in acknowledging their paramount allegiance to Aristotle. Rudolf Steiner had much to say about the deep roots underlying that antagonism. But if we leave the roots alone for a moment, and concentrate on their outward expression in philosophical thought, we find it taking the form of differing interpretations of some quotation from Aristotle, and particularly from his Psychology. Read a few sections of the Summa of Thomas Aquinas, and you will find his references to Aristotle so frequent that, in documenting them, he often does not trouble to repeat the name but simply refers to such and such a passage from such and such a work of “The Philosopher.” Nor is it only in Aquinas. It is not too much to say that you find Aristotle wherever you turn.

Thus, looking at it historically, we see the Age of Scholasticism, with its distinctive and forward-looking quality, emerging by some means from the philosophical welter and profusion and confusion of the age of Eclecticism; and if we ask how it emerged, we are obliged to say: because there were enough thinkers who could cut through the tangle and select, by the sheer force of recognition, the one particular philosopher whose thinking was most far-reaching and most needed for the path their own thinking was being impelled to pursue. And so, just as we were lately left asking whether there could have been a scientific age – or whatever name you choose to characterize the age we live in – without the development of Scholasticism, we are also left asking whether there could ever have been an age of Scholasticism, had it not – what? Had it not crystallized around Aristotle? I do not think the expression is too strong. It was not only philosophy, it was true also for the science of the age. For instance, it was their alchemy – and this too is more commonly recognized than it was – that prepared the ground for modern chemistry; an alchemy that was inextricably bound up with the Aristotelian cosmology. No wonder that the whole stretch of time, with its vicissitudes and violent contrasts so awkward to focus into any kind of unity, the whole long period from the Alexandrians to the Nominalists, is sometimes referred to as the “Aristotelian age.”

From all this I turn abruptly to the present day; and by the present day I mean the 1980s. The abruptness is justified by the circumstance that the observations and conclusion I now want to bring before you came to me quite independently of those I have just been concerned with. Indeed it is only in the last year or two that I have come to see any connection between them. Forty or fifty years ago the name of Rudolf Steiner was virtually unknown outside a few very restricted circles. Except perhaps in Germany, most people had never read nor heard it mentioned. Moreover anyone who aimed to get a hearing for himself mentioned it at his peril. It is not so today. True enough, any serious taking account of his revelations is still taboo in all but a very small academic and scientific milieu, but that milieu is significantly wider than the restricted circles to which I have just referred, and it is very slowly growing wider. Somehow or other the existence, uncomfortable as it may be, of those revelations is beginning to be acknowledged as a fact. It seems to me that the persistence nevertheless of the general taboo rules out any conclusion that this change of attitude has come about as the result of close attention to Steiner’s writings and those of his followers, leading to a conclusion of their soundness. I believe therefore that it arises from a very slight shift in the mental climate of our own age, and I attribute that shift, not to any dialectical progression in the history of ideas, but to a more subterranean process, to an as yet almost imperceptible step forward in the underlying evolution of consciousness. What is changing is not, to begin with, the kind of judgments people form about the world they live in, although it must in the end lead to that. It is rather what some have called their “reality principle,” which is almost another name for what most would call “common sense.” And common sense is not a bad label, since what I am suggesting is a slight decline in the hitherto ruling assumption that our senses are our only reliable approach to reality.

The change is making its appearance in an admittedly small minority of the population, but that minority is not negligible. Moreover – and this is again an argument in favor of its being a function of the evolution of consciousness – that minority is in no sense localized; it is distributed over the whole spectrum of humanity. I detect it at one extremity in the obsession of the less mindful with drugs, and at the other in such things as the growing respectability of some form of “holism” in the life sciences, as well as in the lucubrations of some philosophical physicists. For its exuberant manifestation in the wide area between these extremes, it is more difficult to find any fitting portmanteau phrase, since the varieties are so numerous and so disparate. Perhaps I may be allowed to borrow a phrase from Theodore Roszak and call them the “human potentials” movement.

I once attempted, without much success, to acquire some knowledge of the bewildering welter of societies, groups, study-circles, individuals, religions, sects, ashrams, gurus, etc. that presumably come under that heading. The nearest I got to it was the acquisition – I can’t quite remember when, but I should say not less than seven years ago – of this little booklet, entitled Self-Exploration, a Guide to Groups Involved. To give a quick idea of its contents, the entries are grouped under five heads, Mystical, Martial Arts, Alternative Psychiatry, Alternative Medicine and Herbalism. Those under “Mystical” account for more than half of the book, and I think I will read you the subheadings from the contents page.

Yoga Chakras
Meditation Occult Groups
Centres Witchcraft
Buddhism Occult Shops
Hindu oriented Flying Saucers
Sufis and similar Spiritualism
Gurdjieff, Ouspensky, Nicol Divination
Other groups Astrology
Druids I Ching
Tarot Palmistry
Kabalah Numerology

To which may be added from another source (please don’t think I am intending ridicule):

Soluna, a group whose name, we are told, represents the birth of a New awareness and a modern approach to healing, both self and society. In medieval alchemy, this was symbolized by the Mystical Marriage, represented by the new Moon or the marriage of Sun (Sol) and Moon (Luna); a marriage of heaven and earth, spirit and matter, within ourselves. Soluna is concerned with a modern approach to exploring the inner worlds.

In 1982 this group held a course of lectures in London on “The Mysteries of the Holy Grail, Past, Present and Future.”

I won’t trouble you with the entries under the other headings, though many of them are by no means irrelevant. The Anthroposophical Society comes between White Eagle Lodge and The Atlanteans, and I must say that, allowing for brevity, it is given a fair description:

Anthroposophical Society, 35 Park Road, N.W. 1. Founded in 1912 by Rudolf Steiner, a philosopher who developed spiritually-based theories of architecture, agriculture, education, law, economics, theology and meditation, among other things.

There’s a strong intellectual element – Steiner believed in developing ‘thought as an organ for perceiving the spiritual world.’ He taught that man has three centres which have a corresponding physical basis: thinking – in the brain and nerves; feeling – in the heart and lungs; and willing – in the limbs and metabolism. He developed various techniques for harmonising these centres, including ‘eurythmy,’ a system of movement to speech and music.

To which are added a few practical details.

No question here of hostility or scepticism or deliberately ignoring. Rudolf Steiner and Anthroposophy are welcome to a respected place in the chorus, as one of a formidable number of movements hold to be aiming in the same direction. Some of them undoubtedly are heading in the same direction. What is so easy to overlook is the enormous difference between Anthroposophy and even the deepest and worthiest of those others. And to my mind the same thing applies if we turn to my other category: those more academic movements of thought, which in different ways are attempting to break out of the orthodox reductionism of “common sense” and the strictly empirical science that is based on it. I am thinking, not only of the holistic enclave in the realm of professional biology or of the metaphysical physicists, but also of more general, more nearly popular works such as Roger S. Jones’s Physics as Metaphor or Morris Berman’s Reenchantment of the World. And then there are thinkers I have come across who could not be called popular, and who combine sound learning with truly profound insights – insights which any open-minded anthroposophist can only recognize as profound. You find them among those who read papers to the annual Eranos Conference in Switzerland. Henry Corbin and René Guénon are two whose work I happen to have come across and I have no doubt there are more whose names are unknown to me.

Here too we are perhaps entering a phase where Steiner is neither traduced nor wholly ignored but is given his place, even an honored place, as one of many. And here too what is in grave danger of being overlooked, especially by the open-minded who rightly welcome honest thought from whatever quarter it may come, is the truly unbridgeable gap between any one of these thinkers and Rudolf Steiner. It is in danger of being overlooked because one would really like to be able to overlook it. One resists acknowledging it. One would much rather things were otherwise. But they are not. One resists partly because one does not want to be a fanatic – or to be called one. It is a bad thing to be a fanatic; but it is a worse one to refuse to look facts in the face for fear of being called a fanatic.

But let me give a brief example of what I mean by the gap. There are among us those who by their own mental effort have arrived at a position which is quite in harmony with one or more of the general principle of Spiritual Science. How welcome they are! Among them is one, for example, whose well documented suggestions I for one find deeply interesting. In his book A New Science of Life (1981) Rupert Sheldrake, a fellow of the Royal Society, posits the existence of what he names the “Morphogenetic Field,” a realm of immaterial forces, which can produce material, biological phenomena; and which may also, he more tentatively hazards, be effective in human psychology. A startlingly original theory and one which may well have a beneficial influence on the rigidities of the scientific establishment. An important symptom, if not an important event. But now compare his book with the wealth of detail about the morphogenetic field (only there it is called “the etheric”) in the literature of Spiritual Science: the four ethers, and their relation both to the elements and to the human psyche, the human etheric body, the changes in the etheric earth in the course of the year, etc., etc., and with the use and application of that detailed knowledge in therapy, education, agriculture and elsewhere. If you want an analogy, think of the discovery of electricity. It is the difference between early experiments with a newly discovered phenomenon called “electricity” – rubbing amber on your sleeve and finding it attracts gossamer; flying a kite in a thunderstorm to see what happens, and so on – the difference between that and the blueprint for a nest of whirring dynamos in some 20th century power station that lights a whole city and energizes its transport.

Or I could offer an example nearer home. One of our seminars here is devoted to the contribution of a certain Owen Barfield. Look into his work and see what is the most he can claim to have done. With the help of laborious arguments, allusions to the history of language, appeals to experience in one realm and another and so forth he has (let us say, putting it at its highest) established the fact that, yes, there really must be such a thing as an evolution of consciousness. And now turn, not to any arguments for, but to the use of the evolution of consciousness as we find it in Steiner. The mere fact itself is hornbook stuff. It is the airstrip from which the flight, from which the whole squadron, takes off; essential (because the clutter of centuries has to be removed to make the ground smooth enough), but it is the flight and where it will take us that matter.

For many years past reflections of this nature have been impressing themselves on me with a force that increases with every year that passes. It is only in the last year that I have come to connect them in any way with what I was saying in the first part of this lecture. Is there not a real historical analogy here? Symptoms indeed of a forward move in the evolution of consciousness towards the future; some of the contributions, whether from groups or individuals, with more, or even much more, than a symptomatic value – for the individuals who feed on them; no doubt sometimes meeting those individual needs in a way that no other path would serve. Not every human being needs to be an anthroposophist in order to save his soul. But for the future of human society, for the future of civilization itself, those praiseworthy efforts will have little or no effect because there is variety everywhere and cohesion nowhere. We are about a quarter of the way through the 5th age; and it was at around a quarter or a third of the 4th age that that spotty outbreak of Eclecticism appeared. I confess to drawing considerable support from this analogy for a conviction I had been forced to without its help: namely that the future of western science and western thought does really depend on whether or not it is impelled to crystallize round Steiner – to the like extent that it once crystallized round Aristotle.

Thus, if the first part of this lecture has been of any value, it is because it might remind us that the growth of an age into its rightful heritage may indeed depend on the mind and work of one man. But I must emphasize the precise words I used just now. I said “to the like extent.” I did not say “in the same way.” We are living in the age of the Consciousness Soul, not of the Intellectual Soul, and there is a world of difference between the two. You would be mistaken if you supposed I am fancying philosophers, scientists, doctors, sociologists and others poring over the extracts from one or more of Steiner’s writings, dissecting the sentences word by word, disputing the correct interpretation of them, and even perhaps ostracizing or persecuting anyone who was minded to depart from them altogether. What I do see, if things are not to go very badly indeed with us, is a rapidly increasing habit of using his revelations. And that of course was what he himself wanted. He had no desire for them to be believed or swallowed whole. As Robert McDermott summarizes in one of the introductions in his valuable book The Essential Steiner:

Steiner’s indications for spiritual truth are intended as disclosures which await verification by future observers. Steiner in effects says: let future spiritual scientists observe the validity of my spiritual perception, and let the scientist limited to empirical observation note the extent to which observable phenomena not only correspond to, but are illuminated by, the insights of Spiritual Science.

In one of the stories in the Arabian Nights – “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” I think – it becomes important to identify one particular room-door in a long row of exactly similar doors. The conspirators, who intend to murder the room’s occupant during the night, mark the door with a cross. His wife or lover determines to save him, so what does she do? Since she can’t erase the mark, she marks all the other doors in the row with a similar cross. I suspect this is the strategy the Adversary is adopting here, only not with rescue as its object. No longer hostility; no longer the conspiracy of silence. He cannot obliterate the thinking and the revelations of Rudolf Steiner. He can, and I think he intends to, encourage them to sink gently out of sight into a quicksand of amorphous, anti-reductionist impulse. That, it seems to me, is the danger that lies immediately ahead, and I commend it to your close attention.

Owen Barfield

Copyright © 1997 — Owen Barfield Literary Estate.       Return to Top.