The History of the Anthroposophical Movement

by Rudolf Steiner

Helena Blavatsky

Lecture Three – The Opposition to Spiritual Revelations

Dornach, 12 June 1923

In wishing to describe the development of groupings which have a certain connection with the Anthroposophical Society, I yesterday had to make reference to the impact of H.P. Blavatsky, because Blavatsky's works at the end of the nineteenth century prompted the coming together of those whom I described as homeless souls.

Blavatsky's works have very little to do with anthroposophy. I do not, however, want simply to describe the history of the anthroposophical movement, but also to characterize those of its aspects which relate to the Society. And that requires the kind of background which I have given you.

Now it is of course quite easy — if we want to be critical — to dismiss everything that can be said about Blavatsky by pointing to the questionable nature of some of the episodes in her life.

I could give you any number of examples. I could tell you how, within the Society which took its cue from Blavatsky and her spiritual life, the view gained ground that certain insights about the spiritual world became known because physical letters came from a source which did not lie within the physical world. Such documents were called the Mahatma Letters. Note 1 ] It then became a rather sensational affair, when evidence of all kinds of sleight of hand with sliding doors was produced. And there are other such examples.

But let us for the moment take another view, namely to ignore at first everything which took place outwardly, and simply examine her writings. Then you will come to the conclusion that Blavatsky's works consist to a large degree of dilettantish, muddled stuff, but that despite this they contain material which, if it is examined in the right way, can be understood as reproducing far-reaching insights into the spiritual world or from the spiritual world — however they were acquired. That simply cannot be denied, in spite of all the objections which are raised.

This, I believe, leads to an issue of extraordinary importance and significance in the spiritual history of civilization. Why is it that at the end of the nineteenth century revelations from a spiritual world became accessible which merit detailed attention, even from the objective standpoint of spiritual science, if only as the basis for further investigation; revelations which say more about the fundamental forces of the world than anything which has been discovered about its secrets through modern philosophy or other currents of thought? That does seem a significant question.

It contrasts with another cultural-historical phenomenon which must not be forgotten, namely that people's ability to discriminate, their surety of judgement, has suffered greatly and regressed in our time.

It is easy to be deceived about this by the enormous progress which has been made. But it is precisely because individual human beings participate in the spiritual life as discerning individuals that we get some idea of the capacity which our age possesses to deal with phenomena which require the application of judgement.

Many examples could be quoted. Let me ask those, for example, who concern themselves with, say, electrical engineering, about the significance of Ohm's Law. The answer will be, of course, that Ohm's Law constitutes one of the basic rules for the development of the whole field of electrical engineering. When Ohm Note 2 ] completed the initial work which was to prove fundamental for the later formulation of Ohm's Law his work was rejected as useless by an important university's philosophical faculty. If this faculty had had its way, there would be no electrical engineering today.

Take another example: the important role which the telephone plays in modern civilization. When Reis, Note 3 ] who was not part of the official scientific establishment, initially wrote down the idea of the telephone and submitted his manuscript to one of the most famous journals of the time, the Poggendorffschen Annalen, his work was rejected as unusable. That is the power of judgement in our time! One simply has to face up to these things in a fully objective manner.

Or there are occasional fine examples which characterize the judicial competence of the trendsetters among those who are responsible for administering, say, our cultural life. And the general public moving along the broad highway is completely spellbound by what is deemed acceptable by these standards today. No country is better or worse than any other.

Take the case of Adalbert Stifter, Note 4 ] a significant writer. He wanted to become a grammar school teacher. Unfortunately he was thought to be totally unsuitable, not talented enough for such a post. Coincidentally a certain Baroness Mink, who had nothing to do with judging the ability of grammar school teachers, heard about Adalbert Stifter as a writer, acquainted herself with the material he had produced so far — which he himself did not think was particularly good — and prevailed upon him to have it published. That caused a great stir. The authorities suddenly took the view that there was no one better equipped to become the schools inspector for the whole country. And thus a person who a short while before had been thought too incompetent to become a teacher was suddenly appointed to supervise the work of every other teacher!

It would be an exceedingly interesting exercise to examine these things in all areas of our intellectual life, finishing with someone like, for instance, Julius Robert Mayer. Note 5 ] As you know, I have called into question the application under certain circumstances of the law of conservation of energy, which attaches to his name. But contemporary physics defends this law unconditionally as one of its pillars. When he went to Tübingen University, he was advised one fine day to leave, because of his performance. The university can certainly take no credit for the discoveries he made, because it wanted to send him down before he sat the exams which enabled him to become a doctor.

If all this material were seen in context, it would reveal an exceedingly important element in contemporary cultural history; an element through which it would be possible to demonstrate the weakness of this age of materialistic progress in recognizing the significance of spiritual events.

Such things have to be taken into account when taking full stock of the hostile forces opposing the intervention of spiritual movements. It is necessary to be aware of the general level of judgement which is applied in our time, an age which is excessively arrogant, precisely about its non-existent capacity to reach the right conclusions.

It was, after all, a very characteristic event that many of the things traditionally preserved by secret societies, which were at pains to prevent them reaching the public, should suddenly be published by a woman, Blavatsky, in a book called Isis Unveiled. Of course people were shocked when they realized that this book contained a great deal of the material which they had always kept under lock and key. And these societies, I might add, were considerably more concerned about their locks and keys than is our present Anthroposophical Society.

It was certainly not the intention of the Anthroposophical Society to secrete away everything contained in the lecture cycles. At a certain point I was requested to make the material, which I otherwise discuss verbally, accessible to a larger circle. And since there was no time to revise the lectures they were printed as manuscripts in a form in which they would otherwise not have been published — not because I did not want to publish the material, but because I did not want to publish it in this form and, furthermore, because there was concern that it should only be read by people who have the necessary preparation in order to prevent misunderstanding. Even so, it is now possible to acquire every lecture cycle, even for the purpose of attacking us.

The societies which kept specific knowledge under lock and key and made people swear oaths that they would not reveal any of it, made a better job of protecting these things. They knew that something special must have occurred when a book suddenly appeared which revealed something of significance in the sense that we have discussed. As for the insignificant material — well, you need only go to one of the side-streets in Paris and you can buy the writings of the secret societies by the lorry load. As a rule these publications are worthless.

But Isis Unveiled was not worthless. Its content was substantive enough to identify the knowledge which it presented as something original, through which was revealed the ancient wisdom which had been carefully guarded until that moment.

As I said, those who reacted with shock imagined that someone must have betrayed them. I have discussed this repeatedly from a variety of angles in previous lectures. Note 6 ] But I now want rather to characterize the judgement of the world, because that is particularly relevant to the history of the movement. After all, it was not difficult to understand that someone who had come into the possession of traditional knowledge might have suggested it to Blavatsky for whatever reason, and it need not have been a particularly laudable one. It would not be far from the truth to state that the betrayal occurred in one or a number of secret societies and that Blavatsky was chosen to publish the material.

There was a good reason to make use of her, however. And here we come to a chapter in tracing our cultural history which is really rather peculiar. At the time there was very little talk of a subject which today is on everyone's lips: psychoanalysis. But Blavatsky enabled the people of sound judgement who came into contact with this peculiar development to experience something in a living way which made what has been written so far by the various leading authorities in the psychoanalytic field appear amateurish in the extreme. For what is it that psychoanalysis wishes to demonstrate?

Where psychoanalysis is correct in a certain sense is in its demonstration that there is something in the depths of human nature which, in whatever form it exists there, can be raised into consciousness; that there is something present in the body which, when it is raised to consciousness, appears as something spiritual. It is, of course, an extremely primitive action for a psychoanalyst to raise what remains of past experience from the depths of the human psyche in this way; past experience which has not been assimilated intensively enough to satisfy the emotional needs of a person, so that it sinks to the bottom, as it were, and settles there as sediment, creating an unstable rather than a stable equilibrium. But once brought into consciousness it is possible to come to terms with such experiences, thus liberating the human being from their unhealthy presence.

Karl JungNote 7 ] is particularly interesting. It occurred to him that somewhere in the depths — of course there is some difficulty in defining where — there are all the experiences with which the human being has failed to come to terms since birth; that embedded in the individual psyche there are all kinds of ancestral and cultural experiences stretching far back. And today some poor soul goes to his therapist who psychoanalyses him and discovers something so deep-seated in the psyche that it did not originate in his present life, but came through his father, grandfather, great-grandfather and so on, until we arrive at the ancient Greeks who experienced the Oedipus problem. It passed down through the blood and today, when these Oedipal feelings make their presence felt in the human psyche, they can be psychoanalysed away. Furthermore, people believe that they have discovered some very interesting connections through their ability to psychoanalyse away what lies in the far distant past of one's culture.

The only problem is that these are thoroughly unscientific research methods. You need only have a basic knowledge of anthroposophy to know that all kinds of things can be extracted from the depths of the human psyche. First there is our life before birth, the things which the human being has experienced before he descended into the physical world, and then there are those things which he has experienced in earlier lives on earth. That takes you from a dilettantish approach to reality! But one also learns to recognize how the human psyche contains in condensed form, as it were, the secrets of the cosmos. Indeed, that was the view of past ages. That is why the human being was described as a microcosm.

What we encounter as psychoanalysis today really is dilettantish in the extreme. On the one hand it is psychologically amateurish because it does not recognize that at certain levels physical and spiritual life become one. It considers the superficial life of the soul in abstract terms, and does not advance to the level where this soul life weaves creatively in the blood and in the breathing — in other words, where it is united with our so-called material functions. But the physical life is also amateurishly conceived, because it is observed purely in its outer physical aspects and there is no understanding that the spiritual is present everywhere in physical life, and above all in the human organism. When these two amateurish views are brought together in such a way that the one is supposed to illuminate the other, as in psychoanalysis, then we are simply left with dilettantism.

Well, the manifestation of this kind of amateurism may be seen with Blavatsky from a psychological perspective. A stimulus may have come from somewhere, through some betrayal. This stimulus had the same effect as if a wise and invisible psychiatrist had triggered within her a great amount of knowledge which originated in her own personality rather than from ancient writings.

Up to the fifteenth century or thereabouts it was not an infrequent occurrence for visions of cosmic secrets to be triggered within human beings by some particularly characteristic physical happening. Later this became seen as an extremely mystical event. The tale told about Jakob Boehme, Note 8 ] who had a magnificent vision as he looked at a pewter bowl, is admired because people do not know that up to the fifteenth century it was very common for an apparently minor stimulus to provoke in human beings tremendous visions of cosmic secrets.

But it became increasingly rare, due to the increasing dominance of the intellect. Intellectualism is connected with a specific development of the brain. The brain calcifies, as it were, and becomes hardened. This cannot, of course, be demonstrated anatomically and physiologically, but it can be shown spiritually. This hardened brain simply does not permit the inner vision of human beings to rise to the surface of consciousness.

And now I have to say something extremely paradoxical, which is nevertheless true. A greater hardening of the brain took place in men, ignoring exceptions which, of course, exist both in men and women — which is not to say that this is a particular reason for female brains to celebrate, for at the end of the nineteenth century they became hard enough too. But it was nevertheless men who were ahead in terms of a more pronounced intellectualism and hardening of the brain. And that is connected with their inability to form judgements.

This was exactly the same time at which the secrecy surrounding the knowledge of ancient times was still very pronounced. It became obvious that this knowledge had little effect on men. They learnt it by rote as they rose through the degrees. They were not really affected by it and kept it under lock and key. But if someone wished to make this ancient wisdom flower once more, there was a special experiment he could try, and that was to make a small dose of this knowledge, which he need not even necessarily have understood himself, available to a woman whose brain might have been prepared in a special way — for Blavatsky's brain was something quite different from the brains of other nineteenth-century women. Thus, material which was otherwise dried-up old knowledge was able to ignite, in a manner of speaking, in these female brains through the contrast with what was otherwise available as culture; was able to stimulate Blavatsky in the same way that the psychiatrist stimulates the human psyche. By this means she was able to find within herself what had been forgotten altogether by that section of humanity which did not belong to the secret societies, and had been kept carefully under lock and key and not understood by those who did belong. In this way what I might describe as a cultural escape valve was created which allowed this knowledge to emerge.

But at the same time there was no basis on which it could have been dealt with in a sensible manner. For Madame Blavatsky was certainly no logician. While she was able to use her personality to reveal cosmic secrets, she was not capable of presenting these things in a form which could be justified before the modern scientific conscience.

Now just ask yourselves how, given the paucity of judgement with which spiritual phenomena were received, was there any chance of correctly assessing their re-emergence only twenty years later in a very basic and dilettantish form in psychoanalysis? How was proper account to be taken of something which had the potential to become an overwhelming experience, but to which psychoanalysis can only aspire once it has been cleansed and clarified and stands on a firm basis; when it is no longer founded on the blood which has flowed down the generations, but encompasses a true understanding of cosmic relationships? How was such experience, which presents a magnificent uncaricatured counter-image to today's impaired psychoanalytical research, to be assimilated adequately within a wider context in an age in which the ability to form true judgements was such as I have described? In this respect there were some interesting experiences to be had.

Let me illustrate this with an example of how difficult it is in our modern age to make oneself understood if one wants to appeal to wider, more generous powers of judgement; you will see from the remainder of the lectures how necessary it is that I deal with these apparently purely personal matters.

There was a period at the turn of the century in Berlin during which a number of Giordano Bruno societies were being established, including a Giordano Bruno League. Its membership included some really excellent people who had a thorough interest in everything contemporary which merited the concentration of ones ideas, feelings and will. And in the abstract way in which these things happen in our age, the Giordano Bruno League also referred to the spirit. A well-known figure Note 9 ] who belonged to this League titled his inaugural lecture “No Matter without Spirit”. But all this lacked real perspective, because the spirit and the ideas which were being pursued there were fundamentally so abstract that they could not approach the reality of the world. What annoyed me particularly was that these people introduced the concept of monism at every available opportunity. This was always followed with the remark that the modern age had escaped from the dualism of the Middle Ages. I was annoyed by the waffle about monism and the amateurish rejection of dualism. I was annoyed by the vague, pantheistic reference to the spirit: spirit which is present, well, simply everywhere. The word became devoid of content. I found all that pretty hard to take. Actually I came into conflict with the speaker immediately after that first lecture on “No Matter without Spirit”, which did not go down well at all. But then all that monistic carrying-on became more and more upsetting, so I decided to tackle these people in the hope that I could at least inject some life into their powers of discernment. And since a whole series of lectures had already been devoted to tirades against the obscurantism of the Middle Ages, to the terrible dualism of scholasticism, I decided to do something to shake up their powers of judgement. I am currently accused of having been a rabid disciple of Haeckel at that time.

I gave a lecture on Thomas Aquinas Note 10 ] and said, in brief, that there was no justification to refer to the Middle Ages as obscurantist, specifically in respect of the dualism of Thomism and scholasticism. As monism was being used as a catchword, I intended to show that Thomas Aquinas had been a thorough monist. It was wrong to interpret monism solely in its present materialistic sense; everyone had to be considered a monist who saw the underlying principle of the world as a whole, as the monon. So I said that Thomas Aquinas had certainly done that, because he had naturally seen the monon in the divine unity underlying creation. One had to be clear that Thomas Aquinas had intended on the one hand to investigate the world through physical research and intellectual knowledge but, on the other hand, that he had wanted to supplement this intellectual knowledge with the truths of revelation. But he had done that precisely to gain access to the unifying principle of the world. He had simply used two approaches. The worst thing for the present age would be if it could not develop sufficiently broad concepts to embrace some sort of historical perspective.

In short, I wanted to inject some fluidity into their dried-out brains. But it was in vain and had a quite extraordinary effect. To begin with, it had not the slightest meaning to the members of the Giordano Bruno League. They were all Lutheran protestants. It is appalling, they said; we make every attempt to deal Catholicism a mortal blow, and now a member of this self-same Giordano Bruno League comes along to defend it! They had not the slightest idea what to make of it. And yet they were among the most enlightened people of their time. But it is through this kind of thing that one learns about powers of discrimination; specifically, the willingness to take a broadly based view of something which, above all, did not rely on theoretical formulations, but aimed to make real progress on the path to the spirit, to gain real access to the spiritual world.

Because whether or not we gain access to the spiritual world does not depend on whether we have this or that theory about the spirit or matter, but whether we are in a position to achieve a real experience of the spiritual world. Spiritualists believe very firmly that all their actions are grounded in the spirit, but their theories are completely devoid of it. They most certainly do not lead human beings to the spirit. One can be a materialist, no less, and possess a great deal of spirit. It, too, is real spirit, even if it has lost its way. Of course this lost spirit need not be presented as something very valuable. But having got lost, deluding itself that it considers matter to be the only reality, it is still filled with more spirit than the kind of unimaginative absence of anything spiritual at all which seeks the spirit by material means because it cannot find any trace of spirit within itself.

When you look back, therefore, at the beginnings you have to understand the great difficulty with which the revelations of the spiritual world entered the physical world in the last third of the nineteenth century. Those beginnings have to be properly understood if the whole meaning and the circumstances governing the existence of the movement are to make sense. You need to understand, above all, how serious was the intention in certain circles not to allow anything which would truly lead to the spirit to enter the public domain. There can be no doubt that the appearance of Blavatsky was likely to jolt very many people who were not to be taken lightly. And that is indeed what happened. Those people who still preserved some powers of discrimination reached the conclusion that here there was something which had its source within itself. One need only apply some healthy common sense and it spoke for itself. But there were nevertheless many people whose interests would not be served by allowing this kind of stimulus to flow into the world.

But it had arrived in the form of Blavatsky who, in a sense, handled her own inner revelation in a naive and helpless manner. That is already evident in the style of her writings and was influenced by much that was happening around her. Indeed, do not believe that there was any difficulty — particularly with H.P. Blavatsky — for those who wanted to ensure that the world should not accept anything of a spiritual nature, to attach themselves to her entourage. In a sense she was gullible because of her naive and helpless attitude to her own inner revelations. Take the affair with the sliding doors through which the Mahatma Letters were apparently inserted, when in fact they had been written and pushed in by someone outside. The person who pushed them in deceived Blavatsky and the world. Then, of course, it was very easy to tell the world that she was a fraud. But do you not understand that Blavatsky herself could have been deceived? For she was prone to an extraordinary gullibility precisely because of the special lack of hardness, as I would describe it, of her brain.

The problem is an exceedingly complicated one and demands, like everything of a true spiritual nature which enters the world in our time, a quality of discernment, a healthy common sense. It is not exactly evidence of healthy common sense to judge Adalbert Stifter incapable of becoming a teacher and subsequently, when the nod came — in this case it was again due to a woman, and probably one with a less sclerotic brain than all those officials — to find him suitable to inspect all those he had not been allowed to join.

A healthy common sense is required to understand what is right. But there are some peculiar views about this healthy common sense. Last year I said that what anthroposophy had to say from the spiritual world could be tested by healthy common sense. One of my critics came to the conclusion that it was a wild-goose chase to talk about healthy common sense, because everyone with a scientific education knew that reason which was healthy understood next to nothing, and anybody who claimed to understand anything was not healthy. That is the stage we have reached in our receptivity to things spiritual.

These examples show you how contemporary attitudes have affected the whole movement. For it is almost inevitable — particularly given someone as difficult to understand as Blavatsky — that such an atmosphere should lead to a variation of the one message: any clever person today, anyone with healthy common sense, will say ignorabimus; Note 11 ] anyone who does not say ignorabimus must be either mad or a swindler.

If we really want to understand our times in order to gain some insight into the conditions governing the existence of the anthroposophical movement, then this must not be seen purely as the malicious intent of a few individuals. It has to be seen as something which in all countries, in contemporary mankind, belongs to the flavour of our times. Then, however, we will be able to imbue the strong and courageous stand we should adopt with something which, if one looks at our age from an anthroposophical point of view, should not be omitted — despite the decisive, spiritually decisive, rejection of our opponents' position — compassion. It is necessary to have compassion in spite of everything, because the clarity of judgement in our times has been obscured.