Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Monday, July 12, 2010

A brief note on Steiner (prolegomenon to reading Barfield)

I have cited Owen Barfield a couple of times in these posts, usually with a link to his magnum opus, Saving the Appearances, but so far I haven’t tried to summarize his thought or even really spell out what I find significant in it. I’ve shirked from this, in part because the task is too big—I won’t accomplish it here either—since I first read Barfield before I was 20, and his influence on my thought has been very great. But also, I’ve hesitated in part because Barfield is likely to be an uncongenial presence to many readers. An unorthodox Christian, Barfield was unabashed in his enthusiasm for Rudolf Steiner, originator of the movement known as Anthroposophy. He translated a number of Steiner's books, and carried on a long epistolary polemic with C.S. Lewis over his ideas. Many who find little in Lewis to agree with will still come down with him against Barfield when it comes to Anthroposophy.

Hence, a word about Steiner is in order. This will be the business of this short post; the next two will take up Barfield himself. Steiner was not a mere crank or nut-case, even just a “charismatic” one; certainly he was not a cult founder or a guru, though he was an extraordinarily successful leader and retains to this day an extensive following that is not always free of humorless piety. Steiner studied under Brentano, edited the works of Goethe, founded Waldorf schools (a matter of special interest to me as a teacher), and pioneered real contributions in agriculture, medicine, and the rights of the disabled. (In Vienna he worked with the hydrocephalic son of the Jewish family with whom he lived, a child who was considered hopelessly ineducable, bringing the boy to the point where he could enter school and continuing to work with him in his education, for a total of six years. The boy eventually became a doctor.) He designed and supervised the construction of eighteen buildings, including the second Goetheanum near Basel (the first one had been burned down in an act of arson) which is widely considered one of the masterpieces of 20th-century architecture.

But it is Anthroposophy for which Steiner is remembered. His spiritual philosophy is based in large part what he derived from Goethe, though he studied very broadly—he wrote his dissertation on Fichte, also edited Jean Paul and Schopenhauer, and wrote one of the very first books of Nietzsche (and very early noted the fascism of Nietzsche’s sister, which must have taken some nerve, as it was she who had invited him to organize the Nietzsche archive.) Besides these more conventional sources, however, Steiner was also impacted by thinkers who are more outliers: by Jacob Boehme (not all that unusual—Boehme’s influence is ubiquitous in Romanticism); by Swedenborg (a man much like himself—polymath, genius, scientist and mystic); and by Madame Blavatsky (“Of course she gets up spurious miracles, but what is a woman of genius to do in the nineteenth century?” a defensive W.B. Yeats remarked). (Anthroposophy broke away from the Theosophical movement when Steiner declined to recognize Krishnamurti as the new messiah—a demurral in which Krishnamurti eventually publicly concurred). Steiner came to use a language it is easy (in some circles) to snicker at now, a language full of cosmic energies and destinies moving the history of the world and the collective soul of humankind, of gods and once-upon-a-time lost continents, a strange syncretic brew he distilled out of his “readings” of the “Akashic record,” the vibrational trace of past events, accessible to the higher mind of the adept.

I have some interest in these more out-there speculations as possible ramifications of the further reaches of human experience, but they are not my subject here. The next couple of posts will be about Barfield, not Steiner. Still, I think this weird streak needs to be declared right up front (and I am interested in anyone's thoughts on Steiner too), for Barfield declined to apologize for his belief in Anthroposophy, and if this gets “discovered” later it is easy to take it for some closet-skeleton that discredits the whole project. (Hence, if a bit of “woo-woo” stuff is going to give you permission to ignore everything, you can skip the exposition.) Moreover, while Barfield refers to Steiner in just a few of his works, Anthroposophy is relevant both to the shape of his thought and to the pertinence I see for it. Just how and why, as well as why this can be an asset and not a liability, will (I hope) become clear.


  1. Steiner confounds what Yeats called 'Whigs'

    ........................ but what is Whiggery?
    A levelling, rancorous, rational sort of mind
    That never looked out of the eye of a saint
    Or out of drunkard's eye.

    (from The Seven Sages)

    He confounds them because for all the zany, as they see it, philosophy, the practical incarnation of his ideas is successful. So method of verification - excellent, meaning of statement - we scratch our polls in stunderment (stunned wonderment).

    What the Sufis that Henry Corbin treats of call 'the imaginal' is the key. I believe that his thought is a description of that world as he lived it and the recipes a practical mediation between there and here.

    I look forward to your note on Barfield.

  2. Mundus Imaginalis in Corbin's words.