The Goetheanum

An Important Reformation and Its Consequences for a Renaissance[1]

 Nathaniel Williams


I would like to state that my intention with this article is to present in brief, simple, and clear terms some issues that I find deserve heightened attention within the Anthroposophical Society. I have been involved in the Class and various circles of responsibility within the Society and School, and I have found it necessary to resign from one position and decline another. My conscience demanded that I share my reasons, and this essay is the result. I am writing both for those who are unfamiliar with the Society’s history and structure and for those who are very familiar with it. The second group will need to bear this dual purpose in mind as they encounter much they already know. I present a simple history of the Society and the School for Spiritual Science, and then wonder what ultimate consequences will be born from certain practices in the First Class and the accepted attitudes among many representatives of anthroposophy. I have to state adamantly that I do not doubt for one instant the deep meaning and substance that the Class work currently assumes in thousands of lives, nor will I be able to express in this essay my respect and admiration for much going on in the anthroposophical movement. I have had the experience that many cannot follow my observations, because they know that their work and the Class provide them with existential nourishment. Again, I am not doubting this. My purpose is to indicate that if certain attitudes, and even methods, in the Class continue to develop as they have, I foresee extremely unfortunate consequences. Indeed, I already see such consequences, which are described below. Some may find the presentation one-sided. It is a side I found needed a polishing, and its particularity does not take away from its objective validity that I hope will be useful.

The Reformation of the Anthroposophical Society in 1923

The reformation of the Anthroposophical Society was an ambitious project couched within a very ambitious life, the prodigious life of Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925). The Society had existed, to an extent, as an association of individuals since 1902. It was at this time that Steiner had become the General Secretary of the German Branch of the Theosophical Society. In 1913 he was excluded from the Society along with 2,500 members, at which point the Anthroposophical Society was formed, which he approached ten years later, in 1923, to restructure. He was a very busy man, and so he had to have a strong justification for taking up such a demanding initiative. He had worked for years clarifying a model-free, phenomenological approach to science, inspired by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s investigations.[2] He had developed a series of cognitive exercises and practices that facilitate a more complex and profound experience of life, ultimately reaching into subtle, purely spiritual dimensions. This led to discoveries and revelations in science, human development, history, art, agriculture, and sociology. Steiner stated that the exercises that he worked out reveal to those who diligently and methodologically pursue them that, besides the biological and psychological aspects of the human being, there is also a spiritual element. This spiritual element does not become perceptible only in individuals, but also in the greater world. He called the practice of these cognitive exercises, and the eventual experiences of life to which they lead, anthroposophically oriented spiritual science. Heinz Zimmerman captured the significance of this as an “epoch making watershed in intellectual history…”—which does not seem an overstatement.[3] Yet Steiner did not simply await judgment on this. He went on to spearhead epic art projects and to collaborate with professionals in various other fields, applying the insights gained through spiritual research for the rest of his life. In the year that he took on the reformation of the Anthroposophical Society, he was already working tirelessly on new research and multiple collaborative projects.

Steiner came to the decision to try his best to restructure the Society. It had assumed a pivotal position in the anthroposophical movement, and its configuration would determine how his other work would be able to develop. The Society had two possibilities: It could become an association of individuals who work together in a manner that facilitates spiritual science, and proving itself by continuing to develop and grow; or, on the other hand, the Society could hinder and ultimately block the ability for spiritual science to become an acknowledged and practical force for renewal in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. He explicitly stated this in 1922, the year before he took on the reorganization of the Society, as well as in the years following.[4] It was, in his eyes, a project of great consequence.

He gave concrete form to the new Society at a conference held during Christmastime of 1923-24,[5] taking on the presidency himself. He then continued to provide leadership and express ideals for this new association in letters and articles to the members that appeared regularly, until his death in 1925.[6] He strove to create the ideal Society for the maturation and development of anthroposophy, which is, after all, what the Society was named for. It was to be an association of attitudes, not a society of statutes. Simple, clear attitudes of a general, humanitarian character were required. This Society, as a legal entity, may have had to meet certain requirements, but its success depended on much, much more. Steiner repeatedly spoke from out of a consciousness of his ideal association, one that required very little from the general member. It should be public and accessible in the highest degree, like any other public society. An interest in any aspect of the work could lead to membership. There was also another type of member, namely those in the association who actively engaged in anthroposophical spiritual science, and who gave their creativity to its development. Steiner called these members active members, and he specified that in a healthy Anthroposophical Society, activity implies responsibility. Whoever wanted to promote and cultivate anthroposophy in the public had to feel the weight of responsibility this implied. The public would view such a person as a representative of anthroposophy, and so the reputation of these revolutionary (which implies controversial) developments depended in part on the conduct and actions of these active members. He expressed four points in an open letter that he published in the Society newsletter:

“…For the members who are active in it, the Anthroposophical Society by its very nature involves definite responsibilities, and these ― for the same reason ― must be taken most seriously. A member, for example, may wish to communicate to others the knowledge and perceptions of Anthroposophy. The moment his instruction extends beyond the smallest and most quiet circle, he enters into these responsibilities. He must then have a clear conception of the spiritual and intellectual position [geistige Lage] of mankind today. He must be clear in his own mind about the real task of Anthroposophy. To the very best of his ability he must keep in close contact with other active members of the Society; and it must be far from him to say, ‘I am not interested when Anthroposophy and those who represent it are placed in a false light, or even slandered by opponents’. (Emphasis NW)[7]        

Rudolf Steiner pictured an association of world-conscious individuals who recognized the importance of anthroposophy and who were determined to work together and to stand up for the dignity of one another’s efforts.

He integrated a School for Spiritual Science into the Society, a school for facilitating initiation and the partially guided awakening to the spiritual aspects of reality. He also stressed the need both for individual meditative practice and for the will to know and change oneself in the context of the School. The School was even divided into Sections that were dedicated to various aspects of life, not unlike departments in a university. These Sections were places for specific practical research, with appointed leaders who collectively were responsible for the School. Active members were encouraged to join this School, and this institution was permeated by the same admonitions for earnestness described above.

Steiner poured his energy into this re-founded Society, with the School at its center, until his death. He was driven, as he felt that our time demanded nothing less.

“It would be extremely difficult for the Anthroposophical Society to tend to what must be done for the cultivation of anthroposophy if the Society were not to demonstrate an understanding for the greatest possible open-mindedness as well as the greatest possible enthusiasm. Anthroposophy itself cannot abide narrow-mindedness and apathy. Now everywhere today you can see how those human relationships that have spiritual substance in them are working energetically to care for the relationships they have thus achieved by means of spiritual substance. Today we see how everywhere these human groups—large groups of human beings around the world—are beginning to work most actively, because this is the time of great decisions in human hearts. The Anthroposophical Society can actually come to have a voice in the present time if the intentions I just indicated are taken up by its members.”[8]

In Rudolf Steiner’s day, the Society counted many capable, stellar individuals among its members and in its leadership. After Steiner’s death, strife erupted among those trying to collaborate.[9] It is undeniable that the ideals expressed in the four points mentioned above were broken, along with many hearts. A very real discord arose between thousands of members and the various leaders. Instead of the good-willed, world-conscious association of collaborators, self-involved groupings developed, busily engaging one another in various heated disagreements. For many, the “re-formed” Society (the Christmas Conference Society) kept its name, but drifted away from its aims.

Today this Society still exists, and Steiner’s research in education, agriculture, medicine, economics, curative education and other fields have inspired thousands of projects sprouting up all over the globe during the past decades. Anyone who feels a connection to this work may begin wondering about the current condition of the Society and of the School at its center. If you follow the fruit of all the practical initiatives back to the stem, and the stem down to the root, you will discover spiritual-scientific inquiry. Spiritual-scientific research and discovery are roots that need practice, care, and tending. Spiritual science, as an advance in empiricism leading into experiences that our bodily senses cannot access, must be cultivated and practiced, and Steiner created a place for individuals methodologically to approach spiritual aspects of reality. This was to be the School for Spiritual Science. Clearly, if these activities are not cared for, they will wither and all the fruits and leaves with them.

So how do things stand today?

The School for Spiritual Science in the Twenty-First Century

Much reconciliation has taken place since the battles of the 1930s and 1940s. In 2008, the Executive Council of the Anthroposophical Society and the leaders of the various Sections of the School for Spiritual Science collaborated in publishing a book titled The School of Spiritual Science: An Orientation and Introduction. One can find the sentiments that inspired Rudolf Steiner living in the book: for instance, Steiner’s demand that active members must “…have a clear conception of the spiritual and intellectual position [geistige Lage] of mankind today. Bodo von Plato writes: “[…] the principles of transparency and public presence have played an important role in social life since the beginning of the twentieth century. The modern human being is called upon to lend a public dimension to the cultivation of his inner development.” A few pages later: “The School for Spiritual Science is public and based on the collaborative work of its members. By its very nature, anthroposophical development engenders not only personal responsibility but also a shared responsibility for an interest in our contemporaries and the state of the world in general. The meditative approach and practice anthroposophy offers is an intimate affair but not a private one.” And then: “[…] the Anthroposophical Society […] should have at its core a cultivation of our sense of a shared humanity. A spiritually-oriented commitment in the present time is characteristic of the School for Spiritual Science.”[10] Indeed, it is obvious from all of the contributions to this book that, on the whole, the spirit and inspiration of the Christmas reformation is alive in the leaders of the Society and School. Even if one might expect to see more, one should think an “epoch making watershed in intellectual history” will demand time as well as collaboration from many, many individuals.

Current Tendencies in the Society relating to Contemporary Consciousness

The Society is happy to count many honest, good-willed, and very capable people among its members. When one looks into the local, national, and international meetings of both a general and specific nature[11] for evidence of the Christmas Conference Society, many questions naturally arise. For anyone who has spent time working within the Society, the tremendous difficulties Steiner faced are not strange difficulties of the past; rather, they are with us still in the present. Often, in these meetings, members do not overlook the revolutionary character of Rudolf Steiner’s discoveries. As is appropriate, they receive considerable attention. However, they are often described and contrasted with “contemporary culture.” It does not take much sensitivity while listening eventually to become aware that there are few specifics in this conception of contemporary culture: It has an anemic body, no true name or face. In my field of interest (art and philosophy), for example, I have repeatedly found that “active members” find it difficult to name five well known contemporaries. There is also no hesitancy to claim that Steiner is the lone voice advocating particular things while not actually knowing whether other individuals or groups are pursuing the same goals. I have personally heard, on many occasions, statements that teach me only about the lack of worldly culture of “active members” due to their obviously closeted areas of interest. Steiner’s first point in the above quoted letter refers to this of course. These meetings are not simply filled with critiques of contemporary culture; instead, positive enthusiasm creates a solid point of common interest. Still, from the perspective of the greater task of the Anthroposophical Society that Bodo von Plato expresses, one can point out that, although interest is most definitely good, extreme self-interest is vanity and self-centeredness. This in turn leads to closed-mindedness and thus negates half of the hopes Steiner envisioned for the Society: “the greatest possible open-mindedness as well as the greatest possible enthusiasm.”

I do indeed know many anthroposophists possessing a “clear conception of the current spiritual and intellectual position of mankind,” which, in the above-mentioned letter, was the first condition Steiner demanded of those wanting to be active representatives in his re-formed Society. I have witnessed, unfortunately, that this is not the rule. And it is not subtle hypocrisy in all cases; I have had discussions with “representatives” of anthroposophic initiatives who express, besides ignorance, plain lack of interest or even fanatic distaste when faced with the question of how they understand contemporary developments in their field. Anyone who has researched Steiner’s inspiration for the new Society’s “active members” can see that this did not belong in it. Steiner’s vision was, without a doubt, for a Society with leaders capable of sincere listening and empathy, taking in deeply the questions of the day. This would most definitely lead the Society into an element of life.[12]

We All Live in One World

The distance that seems to well up between anthroposophical meetings and contemporary life is severely aggravated by another tendency. This tendency has to do with the way the practices Steiner engaged in, and his resulting honed abilities, are thought of. In one lecture by an “active” member, Steiner’s spiritual experiences come off as so unrelated to normal cognition that we can have no conception of them: Steiner possessed “Imaginative cognition,” but this is not essentially related to human imagination. Goethe had a “human imagination” of the primal plant, but it was not akin to “clairvoyance.” In another presentation, Steiner is described as an artist giving an objective interpretation of a spiritual inspiration while all other attempts are merely clumsy intimations of spiritual realities.[13] These attitudes among leaders in the School and Society turn spiritual science into “the spiritual scientist,” and thus they implode, for it is an inherent contradiction that a science could be accessible to only one person. Followers of great individuals can have the oppressive effect of making their heroes inhuman and making all others detestable or unfortunate. I have to admit that I have left anthroposophical meetings feeling depressed, and reminded of Emerson’s words: “[…] that which shows God out of me, makes me a wart and a wen. There is no longer a necessary reason for my being. Already the long shadows of untimely oblivion creep over me, and I shall decease forever.”[14] The meeting itself can be permeated with this mood: “[…] man is ashamed of himself; he skulks and sneaks through the world, to be tolerated, to be pitied, and scarcely in a thousand years does any man dare to be wise and good, and so draw after him the tears and blessings of his kind.”[15]

One cause of this distance between daily life and “spiritual experiences” is briefly diagnosed in one of Steiner’s most basic introductions to the field:

“The higher organs are often involuntarily pictured as too similar to the physical organs. It should be understood that these organs are spiritual or soul formations. It ought not to be expected, therefore, that what is perceived in the higher worlds should be only something like a cloudy, attenuated form of matter. As long as something is expected of this kind, no clear idea can be formed of what is really meant here by higher worlds. For many persons it would not be nearly as difficult as it actually is to know something about these higher worlds—of course, at first only about the elementary regions—if they did not form the idea that what they are to see is again merely rarefied physical matter. Since they take for granted something of this kind, they are not at all willing, as a rule, to recognize what they are really dealing with. They look upon it as unreal, and refuse to acknowledge it as something satisfactory. True, the higher stages of spiritual development are accessible only with difficulty. Those stages, however, that suffice for the perception of the nature of the spiritual world—and that is already a great deal—should not be at all difficult to reach if people would first free themselves from the misconception that consists in picturing to themselves the soul and spiritual merely as a finer physical.”[16] [Emphasis NW]

In the same chapter, he uses an expression from Goethe to express the immanence of reality:

“[Goethe says] that Nature thus speaks downwards to the other senses—to known, unknown, and unrecognized senses. It thus speaks to itself and to us through a thousand phenomena. To the attentive, nature is nowhere either dead or silent.”

Goethe does not mean by this that we cannot know the essential nature of things. Goethe does not mean that we perceive only the effects of a thing, and that the being thereof hides behind them. He means rather that one should not speak at all of a “hidden being.” The being is not behind its manifestation. On the contrary, it comes into view through the manifestation. This being, however, is in many respects so rich that it can manifest to other senses in still other forms. What reveals itself does belong to the being, but because of the limitations of the senses, it is not the whole being. This thought of Goethe corresponds entirely with the views of spiritual science set forth here.[17]

Peter Selg relates one anecdote illustrating this from Steiner’s collaboration with teachers:

“Rudolf Steiner was speaking as an initiated spiritual scientist and thus as someone who had absolutely exceptional powers of perception, which he made available for healing education. The distance between a group of gifted, hard-working teachers (or indeed the young curative teachers) and Rudolf Steiner clearly was as great as could be; at the same time Rudolf Steiner made it clear that, without doubt, making use of their supersensible organs of perception as they continued to relate to the children in the way described, and indeed the further inner development gained by intensively entering into the child’s nature, was in no way “metaphysical” or otherworldly but reflected world-immanence enhanced in the Goethean sense, and thus the power of love. In his curative education course he said:

‘You should never say: I would need to be clairvoyant to perceive such things. That is inner laziness and anyone who takes up the teaching profession should never have this! No, the point is that long before you achieve the level of clairvoyance which is needed for research in general, the loving devotion to anything which shows itself in the human being, developing especially in abnormal conditions, this loving devotion creates the ability in you simply to look at the things which matter. What you say to yourself at that moment will be the right thing.’

“In July 1924, he considered this in more detail in Arnhem:

‘Everything we can perceive in a human being with Imagination, Inspiration and Intuition […] can also be assessed by considering the physical organization of the child, for it everywhere comes to expression in the child.’”[18]

Rudolf Steiner was working toward a scientific approach to the spiritual. And in this spirit we also find his own self-doubt and his calls for peer review:

“In this area [research into the spiritual aura of the human being] a good result will only come from comparing, weighing, and complementing statements of various observers one with the other. With mere repetitive chanting of the Theosophical Dogmas we will not get anywhere. Each individual needs to be aware of the responsibility he carries through expressing his findings. On the other hand, it must be kept in mind that in these high regions of observation mistakes are absolutely possible in this or that matter, indeed they are much more likely than in scientific observations in the sense-world.”[19]  

It is deeply troubling, to say the least, that in many anthroposophical circles it is felt to be blasphemous to even consider Steiner’s ever making a mistake. The deeply demoralizing effect of this fanatical reverence is hard to express. I am never as lonely as I am in the presence of machines and idols.[20]

There is no doubt that the contentedness that many active members exude is certainly rooted in their conviction of the inherent value of anthroposophy. The enthusiasm I mentioned above is certainly genuine. This genuine contentedness cultivated in an insular circle, removed from contemporary life, can develop a strange undertone. An attitude can develop for which the very mention of anthroposophy or Steiner in a conversation, a lecture, or a book solicits respect, while other things, when brought up, are quickly passed by. C.S. Lewis, trying to come to terms with what moderns find boring in medieval literature, sketched a shift in attitude that occurred around the fifteenth century, which I am convinced relates to this. The medieval writer found real personal edification in repeating and describing the ideas and themes of his worldview; its propagation was sufficient to give deep and moving qualities to his work in the medieval context. This literature was born out of a love and devotion for that worldview. The world-conception contained wisdom and genius (living spirit); his work had merit as a picture. And truly, who would mistake a picture for reality? On the other hand, the modern individual faces a world that has no given spiritual meaning, and the modern artist finds meaning in her individual creation and in her experience of significance. These experiences nourish the conception of personal genius and the ideals of modern science, which demand that individual experience and knowledge line up. Immanence is demanded, not Images; Knowledge, not Faith. Spiritual science, distinct from faith, is practiced as a cognitive journey revealing wise relationships at work in reality, but it claims that no system need be imposed upon experience, not a religion or “a philosophy.” In meetings where anthroposophy is presented and admired as a system and not with a sense for immanent cognition, it begins to share the characteristics Lewis points out in medieval literature:

“The writer feels everything so interesting in itself that there is not need for him to make it so. The story, however badly told, will still be worth telling; the truths, however badly stated, still worth stating. He expects the subject to do for him nearly everything he ought to do himself. Outside literature we can still see this state of mind at work. On the lowest intellectual level, people who find any subject entirely engrossing are apt to think that any reference to it, of whatever quality, must have some value. Pious people on that level appear to think that the quotation of any scriptural text, or any line from a hymn, or even any noise made by a harmonium, is an edifying sermon or a cogent apologetic.”[21]

The practice of spiritual science leads to an unfolding recognition of the immanence of meaning in life, so it is not surprising when many will see in it a similarity to older times, when religion and faith served the purpose of giving life meaning. So long as it appears surrounded by such a garb, it will not touch the hearts of modern people. Yet what is so significant about Steiner’s work is not the ordering of a grand theory or philosophy that can be believed, but a path that individuals can take to gain first-hand insight into spiritual realities in their own lives and experiences, initially through unbiased thought and reflection. In other words, it is not spiritual philosophy or religion, but spiritual science, and it must be able to stand up to all the discoveries and developments of modern life and science, indeed live in them and through them, and resist any retreat into any established coherence, if it will stay true to its path. When Steiner wrote the article “Lucifer” in a magazine in 1902, which can be seen as a credo he followed for the rest of his life, he described this marriage of immediacy and wisdom, the individual and the spiritual, as the fundamental goal of his endeavors. He called for those dedicated to current culture and science to bring to consciousness the difficult questions monism demands, for instance the question of the relationship between physics and consciousness. He describes how knowledge (Lucifer[22]) was traditionally depicted as an enemy of religion or spirituality, as typified in the old medieval German story of Faust. For Steiner, this depiction had to be transformed:

“Those on the paths of modern science wanting also to research the laws of the soul should be inspired by a new version of the saying of Angelus Silesius, the seventeenth-century mystic. He said, Christ could be born a thousand times in Galilee—but all in vain until He is born in me. In the same spirit we can say today: ‘The wonder of the natural world-order can arise in you a thousand times, yet until you discover how the laws of the heavenly stars live in your soul, it is all in vain.’ What is being expressed here is closer to us than any object of nature: the human spirit. What addresses each person in these lines is nothing other than his very self. He, who apparently stands so close at hand and yet who is known by very few, yes, whom many seem to not even want to know. For those who are in search of the light of the spirit, Lucifer should be a messenger. He will not speak of a faith foreign to knowledge. He will not flatter the heart to sneak past the scientific guardian of the gate. He will bring the utmost respect to his guardian. He will not preach piousness or grace; rather he will show paths knowledge has to traverse when it seeks, out of itself, to travel through the world-spirit with a religious sentiment, in devout contemplation. Lucifer knows that the brilliant sun can only rise within the heart of each individual, yet he also knows that only the paths of knowledge lead up the mountain where the sun reveals its divine raiment. Lucifer should not be a devil, who leads the striving Dr. Faust into hell, but an awakener for those who believe in the wisdom of the world and who believe that it can be transformed into divine wisdom. Lucifer wants freely to look Copernicus, Galileo, Darwin, and Haeckel in the eye; yet also not sink his gaze when the wise speak of the origins of the soul.”[23]

A new saying for the active members of the Anthroposophical Society could be “Anthroposophy could come alive in your heart a thousand times, yet until you discover how this relates to life in the twenty-first century, you are lost.”

Practices in the School for Spiritual Science and their Possible Ramifications

During Steiner’s original reformation, he asked a number of individuals to teach in the School for Spiritual Science situated at the center of the Society. He needed others to join him in the School and facilitate the meditative work with various mantras, particularly in other countries. These collaborators gave lessons to introduce these mantras to circles of students in the School.[24] In the decades that followed Steiner’s passing, the lessons followed a different protocol, which eventually became common practice. This practice is known as “reading.” A “Class reader” reads, word for word, the lessons that Steiner gave to facilitate meditative work with the mantras for those individuals present in his classes in 1924-25. At a certain point after Steiner’s death, Ita Wegman, who was instrumental in founding the School as well as developing anthroposophically inspired medicine, encouraged this.[25] Steiner, in general, vehemently discouraged reading in the Class, insisting on the individual creativity of each regional leader. He did allow it on one occasion in the context of the School, but as an exception to the rule. On occasion he even tried to conceal the fact that the lessons existed in written form.[26] He discouraged reading in the School for Spiritual Science, in public lecturing, and in higher education generally as truly ineffective and detrimental.[27]

In the First Class, one can distinguish among three approaches: 1) Reading Steiner’s lessons, 2) the free rendering of lessons (which is often a practice of summarizing Steiner’s original lessons in one’s own words), and 3) the free holding of lessons. Steiner’s lessons are examples of the last category; and as far as I can tell, this is also the direction he encouraged leaders in the School to pursue.

Although some time ago a number of Class readers started teaching freely again within the School for Spiritual Science, under the initial lead of Jørgen Smit, today some still present (or “read”) the Class lessons in a way that implies the ability of anthroposophic teachers to introduce the mantras to their community—in their cultural context and geographic setting—as inferior to reading particular words Rudolf Steiner used in his particular time and place.[28] In this context, it struck me as surreally normal to hear Class readers, as honest people, admitting that they cannot give guidance in developing the most basic spiritual perceptions. In my opinion, the continued practice of reading Steiner’s lessons is effectively increasing the gap between anthroposophy and the life of individuals in the twenty-first century. This is a matter of life, not content. Taking this into account, one is not surprised to discover that in the School, current discussions constantly oscillate between Steiner’s time, context, and his statements on the one hand, while on the other one’s own general inability to maintain a practice is discussed.[29]

In 1984, Herbert Witzenmann, a member of the Executive Council of the General Anthroposophical Society, defended the practice of reading:

“The Class lessons were originally held in the Goetheanum, and within this context the Class members first received the transmissions of the mantras. Already at that time the practice was introduced of assigning ‘Class readers’ to repeat the lessons at various locations. Even today this is mostly done by truly repeating the words of Rudolf Steiner that have been passed down. To give a ‘free’ rendering appears misleading when you consider that they [the Class lessons] are the manifested legacy of Steiner’s high initiation.”[30]

He is incorrect, as I have already stated, about the assignments of Class readers. This practice was inaugurated, upheld, and promoted by Ita Wegman after Rudolf Steiner’s death.[31] Here I have to ask the reader to pay particular attention to the fact that I am not making any point regarding the profundity of Steiner’s lessons; I am asking: How is anthroposophy being worked with, and what are the effects of this method? Steiner’s words are, in my eyes, exemplary of anthroposophic practice. He was the prolific originator of the science. I am not discussing whether his lessons contain profound content and direction. Nor is it the point to compare him to other Class teachers. For me it is very disappointing to see that the ritual reading of his texts should be further defended and promoted within the School, as Peter Selg has recently done in his book Rudolf Steiner and the School for Spiritual Science.[32] Although the book offers relevant and significant historical facts about the genesis of the School for Spiritual Science, a moving account of Wegman’s approach to reading the lessons of Steiner—though acknowledging the inspiration, industry, and greatness of Steiner and Wegman—fails to point out the most essential elements that Steiner tried to inspire. The present essay is an attempt to describe them as they appear to me. The ritualized reading of Steiner’s lessons, paired with the feeling of dualism that permeates Class work, seem to me extremely worrisome for a path claiming to lead to a scientific grasp of the spirit. The trajectory they describe is not toward science but toward sectarianism—that is, toward practices that support a belief-oriented attitude rather than one individualized through experience. Steiner wanted to intensify seriousness as the Class matured: “The School for Spiritual Science will impose on its members increasingly stern obligations, otherwise it would have no substance—it would be meaningless.”[33] Yet, looking at what has developed since its inception, I cannot verify that this has been the trend.[34]

In essence, in the School for Spiritual Science there lives a subtle cynicism concerning the immanent humanity of anthroposophy. One could also call it a cynicism concerning the inherent divinity in the human being. Many will say that I am focusing on Steiner’s limited historical person instead of on his unlimited spirit, which is present when his lessons are read. But I am doing the opposite: My point is that many in the Society have become more sentimentally centered on his person than would be hoped for.

These are clearly some of the very issues with which Steiner struggled in 1923, the year before he took up the renewal of the Society, in which he called an extraordinary meeting where many of the issues I have raised were aired. He expressed his views on them as well. He stood in the midst of hundreds of individuals interested in, even fanatical about, the cultural renewal they thought to see in anthroposophy, and rebuked their referring to him as an authority:

“People come forward, quite rightly proclaiming anthroposophy with great enthusiasm. But they emphasized that what they are proclaiming is a doctrine based not on their own experience but on that of a spiritual investigator. This makes for instant conflict with the way of thinking prevailing in present-day civilization, which condemns anyone who advances views based on authority. Such condemnation would disappear if people only realized that the findings of spiritual research recognized by anthroposophy can be arrived at with the use of various methods suited to various ways of investigation, but that once they are obtained, these results can readily be grasped by any truly unprejudiced mentality. But findings acceptable to all truly unprejudiced mentalities can be made and still not lead to fruitful results unless those presenting anthroposophical material do so with attitudes required for anthroposophical presentations—attitudes that are not always prevailing.”[35]   

During this meeting, Steiner lamented that active members, presenting anthroposophy and trying to work together, neglected the practices that had led to the discoveries they were describing. For instance, Steiner shared how the concentrated reading of his book The Philosophy of Freedom could lead to cognitive events that amount to a first-hand experience of the foundations of spiritual-scientific research.[36] Then one would naturally speak in completely different terms about Steiner’s research; the tone of the presentation would imply his person not as an authority, but as a colleague. He also lamented that many “active members” did not practice the most basic exercises, exercises he gave, which lead to clear thinking, control of the will, equanimity, positivity, open-mindedness, and a harmonization of these practices. He was adamant that anthroposophy was being misrepresented, appearing as something unapproachable and secret. He was convinced that if the spirit of anthroposophy could build its own style through inspired, hardworking individuals, then even the automobile king Henry Ford, a representative citizen of the age, could recognize something he was searching for.[37]

What is Ahead?

Today there are individuals both inside and outside the Society working in the spirit Steiner envisioned. And yet I see that negative tendencies of the old Society are also still very much among us, untransformed, some further entrenched. Steiner’s last years appear in the majesty of their true proportions for one who can see the complexity of the situation he was facing. Today, anyone looking for a positive turn in the Society through some modification of its current form, or through the election or appointment of some individual, are in my view destined for disappointment. A common and spiritually inspired effort of many people would be necessary. A particular and distinct spirit has to become palpable and active for this to happen. It is a striking paradox that those who feel most intimately connected to Steiner often inadvertently work against his spirit. The unique image of anthroposophically oriented spiritual science is of a bridge with one foot in the immediate life of humanity (Anthropos) and the other in spiritual reality (Sophia). Many versed in the indications given by Steiner are often unable to fulfill his demand for a thorough understanding of the state of contemporary culture, which deficiency results in the work’s taking on a tint resembling aloof religious sentiments of medieval times. One of the most important challenges is to promote the spirit of monism that science demands, recognizing the immediate, living spirit in our peers and experience. 

Sergei Prokofieff and Peter Selg have recently made contributions concerning the lack of honor that Rudolf Steiner is granted at the Goetheanum, and they have noted the absence of any concerted defense against slander, as clear symptoms of a crisis.[38] Whoever recognizes the importance of anthroposophy for the future will see fit to stand up for its founder, Rudolf Steiner. The fourth point in the letter to active members quoted above calls for exactly this in the Society. I am likewise convinced that Rudolf Steiner receives inadequate attention; however, I would like to add that it is possible to deprive Steiner of his due respect in another way: Without a renewed culture of individual responsibility and integrity among the active members of the Society, and in all the collaborations and dealings of the School for Spiritual Science, emphasis on Rudolf Steiner’s greatness can inadvertently lead away from spiritual light and cognition into the darkness of sectarianism.

These challenges will not simply disappear; radical and thoughtful reform and energy, supported, as Steiner courageously modeled, by spiritual inspiration, are the only fires that can grant integrity to the work.  

Nathaniel Williams studied visual art, and marionette-theater in Basel Switzerland, graduating with a certificate in visual art from the neueKUNSTschule in 2002. He has been active as a performer, artist and teacher in art since returning to the USA in 2004. He is co-founder of Free Columbia, an arts initiative in Columbia County, New York. He is currently studying in the University of Albany. He is also author of the essay Art, Postmodernity, and Anthroposophy




[1] Printed in Deepening Anthroposophy Issue 4.3, 20 February 2015 ([email protected] / editor’s notes © Deepening Anthroposophy 2015), alongside the Foreword to Peter Selg’s forthcoming book on this theme The Michael School and the School for Spiritual Science. An earlier version of this essay was printed in being human, a quarterly for members and friends of the Anthroposophical Society in America, Autumn 2012.

[2] For recent innovations along these lines, see the work of Craig Holdrege, Georg Maier, and Johannes Kuhl.

[3] The School of Spiritual Science: An Orientation and Introduction, Temple Lodge 2010, p. 9.

[4] Rudolf Steiner, Awakening to Community, The Anthroposophic Press, 1974, p. 38 and The Constitution of the School of Spiritual Science, The Anthroposophical Society in Great Britain, 1964 [reprinted by RSP 2013], pp. 14-17.

[5] Rudolf Steiner, The Christmas Conference for the Foundation of the General Anthroposophical Society, Rudolf Steiner Press, 1987.

[6] Rudolf Steiner, The Life, Nature and Cultivation of Anthroposophy, The Anthroposophical Society in Great Britain, London 1963.

[7] Ibid., p. 23.

[8] Rudolf Steiner, The Constitution of the School of Spiritual Science, op. cit., 1964, pp. 26-27. Translation adapted.

[9] See for example J.E. Zeylmans van Emmichoven, Who Was Ita Wegman? Vol. 3, Mercury Press 2005; and Johannes Kiersch, The History of the School of Spiritual Science, Temple Lodge 2006.

[10] The School of Spiritual Science: An Orientation and Introduction, Temple Lodge 2010, pp. 12-17.

[11] Besides general meetings for members, there are also specialized meetings of the Sections mentioned above, under the auspices of the School for Spiritual Science. 

[12] Rudolf Steiner, The Life, Nature and Cultivation of Anthroposophy, The Anthroposophical Society in Great Britain, 1963, letter IX: “It is often emphasized, and rightly, that Anthroposophy must come to life in mankind and not remain a mere teaching. But a thing can only come to life when it takes a perpetual stimulus from life.”

[13] Rudolf Steiner was not guilty of this vanity, as his many statements concerning his art reveal. See, for instance, Rudolf Steiner, Colour, Rudolf Steiner Press 2005, pp. 63-80: “[…] the way in which these things must be looked at is not yet fully understood even among us. The unshakable standpoint must be that something new, a new beginning, is at least intended in our Movement. What lies beyond this ‘intention’ has of course yet to come. We with our building can still do no more than ‘intend.’ Those who can do more than intend [will come in the future] […]”

[14] Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Divinity School Address” (1838), The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Modern Library 2000, p. 69.

[15] Ibid, p. 74.

[16] Rudolf Steiner, Theosophy, Anthroposophic Press 1985, pp. 75-76.

[17] Ibid, pp. 72-73.

[18] Peter Selg, The Therapeutic Eye, SteinerBooks 2008, p. 37.

[19] Rudolf Steiner, Luzifer-Gnosis, Gesammelte Aufsätze 1903-1908, GA 34. Verlag der Rudolf Steiner Nachlassverwaltung, 1960, pp. 136-137 (NW translation).

[20] Machines and robots are fascinating and full of intelligence, yet in the end there is no living, creative spirit connected to them. They are all form, all repetition; even when they are apparently infinitely complex, we sense this. From their very nature, machines and computers cannot ignite our interest and wonder like another individual spirit, who is potential, creativity, and living morality as well as form. An idol is an instance that is given an absolute-reality principle. The reverence that leads to idolatry is initially an acknowledgment of a living and inspired presence, for example the creative reality of Rudolf Steiner. In situations where the absolute-reality principle is felt as formed, perfect, and complete, as well as unresponsive to life and the people and processes in the immediate vicinity, loneliness can certainly be anticipated.

[21] C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image, Cambridge University Press 2006, pp. 204-205.

[22] Editor’s Note (from Deepening Anthroposophy [DA]): Throughout his life’s work, Rudolf Steiner characterized Lucifer in various ways and from different perspectives. In the following quotation from his early work, Rudolf Steiner emphasizes the influence of Lucifer from a cosmic perspective: that of catalyzing the primordial human desire for knowledge. In his later work, Rudolf Steiner more commonly characterizes Lucifer from the perspective of his activity within the human soul, as tempter toward over-self-estimation and groundless fantasy. (In Rudolf Steiner’s words, the luciferic beings “possess such forces as we human beings manifest when we become visionaries, when we abandon ourselves one-sidedly to fantasy, let ourselves be carried away, and, speaking metaphorically, lose our heads…” The Incarnation of Ahriman, GA 194, Rudolf Steiner Press 2006, 21 Nov. 1919.) Contrasted to this is the influence of Ahriman, who embodies an opposite quality of overly sober materialistic thinking. Christ is the spirit who helps the human being to achieve equilibrium between these two poles. (Cf. GA 194, ibid.)

[23] Rudolf Steiner, Luzifer-Gnosis, GA 34, op. cit., pp. 32-33 (NW translation).

[24] Editor’s Note (from DA): In this connection, there are various points of view about the following subtle yet crucial question: To what extent did Rudolf Steiner envision these collaborators 1) as holding Class lessons in the same sense in which he himself held them, as opposed to 2) presenting the mantras more informally as a prelude to group discussion; or did Rudolf Steiner envision 3) a combination of both practices? The answer to these questions seems to have been unclear even to Rudolf Steiner’s closest colleagues, although many of them gave much fruitful attention to them (see Johannes Kiersch, op. cit.). Peter Selg suggests that the second possibility (2) may have played an important and underestimated role within the School, and that perhaps it should not be presumed that the more informal gatherings focusing on the mantras were the same as what has now become the practice of “free rendering” (cf. the Introduction to Peter Selg, Rudolf Steiner and the School for Spiritual Science, Steiner Books 2012). In connection with this riddle, Kiersch writes that “Rudolf Steiner had refused to give anyone but Mrs. Kolisko permission to read the transcripts of the Class lessons [aloud to the Waldorf School teachers in Stuttgart], but:”—and then Kiersch quotes the following portion of a letter from Ita Wegman to Albert Steffen—“‘Rudolf Steiner did give some people whom he knew well permission to speak the mantras before Class Members and give some explanations relating to them.’” (Kiersch, p. 64) Many additional thought-provoking perspectives from Rudolf Steiner’s early colleagues are documented in the books mentioned.

[25] On page 109 of his book Rudolf Steiner and the School for Spiritual Science (SteinerBooks 2012), Peter Selg quotes an introduction to a Class lesson by Ita Wegman, in which she says: “We knew that the continuation of esotericism did not imply the presentation of new esoteric results. Continuation had to mean that the given wisdom was guarded in the right way.” Regardless of the rightness of this statement in its original context and time, today, coupled with a mood of the transcendental nature of anthroposophy, it becomes worrisome. With regard to Ita Wegman’s words just quoted, the point I am bringing into focus is that of “guarding the given wisdom”—in other words, the degree of individual autonomy and insight appropriate to fostering a culture of responsibility within the First Class. I maintain that the practice of “free holding” (which is not recapitulating in one’s own way what one has come to know from Steiner’s initial lessons, as is done in “free rendering,” but rather working out of one’s own insight and meditative work with the mantras and anthroposophy) is vital to the life of the Class, for individualized autonomy and responsibility are inalienable. This is why I am taking issue with Ita Wegman’s emphasis on “guarding” the wisdom of the Class lessons by means of the practice of “reading.” My opinion is that this attitude is undermining consciousness of anthroposophical immanence and inflates dogmatism in anthroposophical work. For those able actually to acknowledge the historical development through which the School has passed, it is interesting to ask what state the School and the Society would be in if reading had never been ritualized, and instead individual responsibility and initiative had been cultivated with the same reverence and zeal that the ritual readings received. How formative those practices are that we engage our whole selves in on a repeated basis! Or it is even possible to consider the form Ita Wegman gave the Class as exactly what was required of the last century, and yet still see that it has become insufficient for the twenty-first century. This is a matter of speculation, but regardless, it is clear that Ita Wegman’s insights into her time cannot be used as a readymade measure for today. 

[26] Editor’s Note (from DA): “‘They simply do not exist’—he would say very firmly.” (Marie Steiner, notebook entry; cited in Kiersch, p. 60.)

[27] Rudolf Steiner, The Life, Nature and Cultivation of Anthroposophy, The Anthroposophical Society in Great Britain, 1963, pp. 24-26. Steiner tries to describe how to protect individuality without compromising true and inner association in the Society. He goes so far as to state that “[s]piritual activity can of course only thrive by free unfoldment on the part of the active individualsand we must never sin against this truth.” For other examples see Rudolf Steiner, Veroffentlichungen Aus Dem Literararischen Frühwerk, Sektion für redende und musische Kunste am Goetheanum, 1939, pp. 195-197; Rudolf Steiner, The Art of Lecturing, Mercury Press 1984.

[28] Editor’s Note (from DA): In recent years, the practice of “free rendering” has become more widely practiced than the method of “reading.” For example, at a recent conference at the Goetheanum (in July 2014), the nineteen Class lessons were presented to members of the School, in English and in German, solely in free-rendered form. Nathaniel Williams further seeks to distinguish “holding” from “rendering,” as explained in Note 25 above.

[29] I am well aware that my own presentation in this very article is guilty of this to some degree, and my reason is that I hope it will be heard by as wide a circle of “active members” in the Society as possible. These circles are largely united in their respect for Rudolf Steiner and his intentions.

[30] Herbert Witzenman, Die Prinzipien der Allgemeinen Anthroposophischen Gesellschaft als Lebens Grundlage und Schulungsweg, Gideon Spicker Verlag, 1984, pp. 45-46. (Translation NW)

[31] Editor’s Note (from DA): As Rudolf Steiner’s personally appointed coworker in matters of the First Class, Ita Wegman felt responsible for maintaining this impulse and imbuing her work to this end with an atmosphere of inner earnestness through the practice of “reading.” This is how she envisioned the “guarding” of the wisdom of the Class lessons. Further details on the inner and outer context of Ita Wegman’s conduct in relation to the Class lessons can be found in Johannes Kiersch, The History of the School of Spiritual Science, op. cit.; Peter Selg: Rudolf Steiner and the School for Spiritual Science, SteinerBooks 2012; and Peter Selg, Die Freie Hochschule für Geisteswissenschaft und die Michael-Schule, Arlesheim 2014.

[32] Peter Selg, in Rudolf Steiner and the School for Spiritual Science, SteinerBooks 2012.

[33] Rudolf Steiner, The Constitution of the School of Spiritual Science, op. cit., 1964, p. 39.

[34] Recently, in Anthroposophy Worldwide, a report on discussions at the Goetheanum regarding the bar for membership in the Society and School appraised the former as set too high and the latter too low. I have heard members of the Society talk to prospective members as needing to consider “taking up karma” and “deciding if they are with us or not,” or considering whether they are “committed to Rudolf Steiner. I agree that this is a bar set very high for a “public” society! On the other hand, the level of work and commitment in the Class is not extremely high, and much is tolerated that paralyzes the work.

[35] Rudolf Steiner, Awakening to Community, Anthroposophic Press 1974, pp. 38-39.

[36] Ibid, pp. 44-45.

[37] Rudolf Steiner, The Constitution of the School of Spiritual Science, op. cit., 1964, pp. 14-17.

[38] Crisis in the Anthroposophical Society and Pathways to the Future, Temple Lodge 2013.