THE TURN OF THE CENTURY
At the end of the last chapter brief reference was made to the inner experiences that in some respects reoriented Steiner’s entire life. From his thirty-fifth year onwards, and indeed for almost seven years—perhaps right up to the watershed lecture given to the Giordano Bruno Bund in October, 1902—the changes taking place in his inner life were visibly reflected in his outer life, which seems to have been lacking in the clear sense of direction that was to be so noticeable from the end of 1902 onward, when the decision had at last been taken to ”keep silent” no longer. Steiner speaks of this seven year period as one of severe testing, and this was as true of his outer as of his inner life. The chapters he devotes to this period in his autobiography are undoubtedly the most dense, the most compact, in the entire book. Written as they were when he was on his deathbed, on the one hand they constitute an altogether remarkable feat of the reliving of mental and spiritual experiences of the far from recent past. But at the same time they also represent Steiner’s last word on the very nature of spiritual perception as he himself knew and experienced it. As such, these chapters, especially 22 and 23, should be read most carefully by anyone who is seriously interested in Steiner’s own manner of thinking, the relation between thinking and perception, the different kinds of knowledge and how they are verified through spiritual experience—and above all how the external world, which comprises both the world of nature and man himself, can be comprehended in its sense-perceptible and non sense-perceptible aspects by the living thinking that it is now the primary task of man to develop, through his own intensive efforts. These chapters, rather naturally, do not reveal their secrets at once, nor necessarily at the tenth or twentieth reading. But especially those who are sceptical of Rudolf Steiner’s exceptional powers may find it worth while making the effort to understand this distillation of the experience of one of the very few fully self-conscious seers of our epoch. Such a study ought especially to be undertaken by those who dismiss him as deluded or a charlatan without having ever given any serious consideration to his work.
In essence the beginning of this period was marked, as Steiner himself tells us, by his sudden ability to perceive the external world in a manner that he had found impossible hitherto. Though the spiritual worlds had always been open to him, the ordinary sense world was perceived through what amounted to a kind of veil, and not in the entirely clear manner experienced by most of us. Or, as he puts it himself with exquisite precision: ”It was as if I had not been able to pour the soul’s inner experience deeply enough into the sense- organs to bring the mind into union with the full content of what was experienced by the senses.”27
Steiner recognized that this process of perceiving with clarity the external world open to the senses—a process ordinarily taken for granted even by psychologists, and defined here as passing ”from the soul’s weaving in the spiritual world to an experience of the physical”—as a rule occurs very early in the life of a child, so early that we are not aware of the change at all when we are children, and it is not ordinarily perceived by parents in their children from lack of having had knowledge of it in themselves. Now that Steiner experienced the change as a mature man it proved to be not only remarkable in itself but carried implications of the utmost importance for his life thereafter. This was because at the same time that he began to perceive the external world clearly he became aware that because of his developed spiritual faculties it could not be perceived as it truly is unless by an effort of will the self made itself, so to speak, selfless, thus allowing the external world to reveal itself in its essence—not only as it appears to sense perception but with its spiritual counterpart behind, thus revealing to his selfless gaze both percept and concept at the same time. This possibility, of course, had been already known to him in his mind since it is the essential core of The Philosophy of Freedom, and constitutes his main argument for the existence of a spiritual, non-physical world. But this recognition in advance was very different indeed from what he now knew beyond any possibility of doubting from his own experience.
It is, indeed, an essential part of his experience of these years of testing that so much of what he had formerly known through his mental and spiritual development he was now able to perceive. This includes perception through his developed spiritual faculties in the worlds of spirit that are ordinarily imperceptible to man. And very much of what he was later to set down in writing soon after the turn of the century in his remarkable little book on the development of these faculties called Knowledge of the Higher Worlds—How is it Attained? was certainly experienced for himself in these years with an intensity neither possible nor necessary for him before the age of 35.
In our materialistic and generally sceptical age it is difficult for most people to take seriously the ancient teaching that there ever was a ”fall” of man, as described in the Old Testament, though they may be willing to admit that the story embodies a powerful myth, presumably devised by some prehistoric or even historic religious genius, perhaps Moses himself. Still less are they willing to accept the notion of a real devil, the actual embodiment or personification of evil. When Christ was ”tempted” in the ”wilderness,” as narrated in the New Testament, they believe that the temptation at most must have been in his own soul (or mind), not whispered to him by any devil or Satan. However, if a man develops those higher faculties which, in Steiner’s words, ”slumber within every human being,” it becomes possible, indeed very early on the path of higher development, to recognize the existence in the spiritual worlds not only of those beings belonging to hierarchies above man (such as the angels), whose existence has been described in so many religious writings of the past, and by those founders of religions who have had direct personal spiritual experience, but also of beings who are unquestionably evil, in the sense that they wish to prevent man from attaining the goal willed for him by those higher beings who are truly interested in his welfare. These evil beings are neither human inventions nor hallucinations, but are perceived by the seer as realities, and they do indeed tempt man, as they once tempted the Christ in the wilderness.
Steiner distinguishes two categories of these beings, in particular, and to their leaders he gave the old names of Lucifer and Ahriman—and indeed it is a very important insight that there are at least two different kinds of evil, whether or not, as Steiner held and as most of us can at present only believe or disbelieve, these evils are also the activity of actual beings anxious to hinder man’s spiritual development. The two beings say respectively to man: ”You shall be as gods,” and ”you are nothing but men, essentially no different from animals, and you possess neither soul nor spirit, while the world, in essence, is nothing but a machine.” Both beings tempt man by offering him different kinds of power and glory. But Lucifer, as his name implies (the light-bearer) offers him many gifts that fill his life of feeling with a glow of warmth, while Ahriman offers him gifts that are used by his intellect and will to give him an apparent understanding (correct, indeed, as far as it goes) of the earthly world, and the power to use for his own ends what is thus revealed to him.
This is all that needs to be said of these beings at this point, but since they are an essential element in Steiner’s teaching and world outlook they will have to be referred to again in this book by the names given to them here. As far as Steiner’s own inner development is concerned, he tells us—and we may well believe it!—that he was not led into ahrimanic error, that is, into the belief that the world of nature is devoid of spirit. He could not fall into this trap because of his own actual experience of the world of spirit that underlies the physical world perceived by our senses. But in penetrating deeply for the first time into this physical world, as he had been unable to do before his thirty-fifth year, he necessarily came into contact—apparently also for the first time—with powerful ahrimanic beings who ”wanted to cause the knowledge of nature to become, not perception of spirit but a mechanistic-materialistic way of thinking.” At that time Steiner tells us, ”I had to save my spiritual perception by inner battles. These battles were the background of my outer experience.”
Although in later years various opponents accused Steiner of having been a materialist because of his defense of Haeckel and other monists, he informs us explicitly that, as we might suppose, for obvious reasons he was never in any danger of succumbing to this particular kind of ahrimanic temptation. Nevertheless in his autobiography he does speak of having experienced what he calls a ”state of inner movement which drove into billows and breakers all the forces of my soul,” thus making it necessary here to try to recreate as far as possible from what he says, not always with perfect clarity (see especially Chapter 27 of his autobiography) his actual experience of the time.
In his first years in Berlin after leaving Weimar he was compelled to live in disagreeable lodgings and find his meals where he could. He was extremely short of money because the Magazine for Literature could afford to pay him very little for his articles, and indeed it was rapidly losing subscriptions under his editorship, partly, as he tells us in a lecture given in Dornach on October 27th, 1918, because of his own insistence on writing articles that were not pleasing to his older subscribers, most of whom were associated with the University of Berlin. So the Magazine was always a source of anxiety to him, if only because he had contracted to pay for it by instalments, which were obviously in such circumstances difficult to meet. In time he might hope to attract new readers for the kind of unorthodox articles and reviews that he was writing, but meanwhile he had to live—and, as we have seen, his co-editor Hartleben was of no use to him in this respect and was frequently absent in Italy or elsewhere. The Magazine brought him into contact with many unorthodox persons from all ranks of society, especially writers, dramatists and poets, most of them impecunious. Thus Steiner spent much of his time in cafés, as he had in his younger days in Vienna, and the society he frequented was what used to be called ”Bohemian.” It is true that he was gaining much experience, especially in the world of the theatre, and this experience he evidently enjoyed. But what he was now doing was very far from what had been predicted for him by those who knew him as one of the most promising young scholars of his day, and it seems certain that he had purposely avoided seeking an academic position that he could have had for the asking because he did not wish to commit himself to such a well defined and circumscribed career, while he was still uncertain of what would be asked of him by his spiritual guides. Later, in a lecture given in 1912, he was to speak of the correct attitude that a man should take regarding a work that he recognized needed to be done. He should, Steiner said then, be happy if the work were done by anyone, and never come to believe that he alone was capable of doing it or ought to do it in preference to anyone else. But at the turn of the twentieth century it seems extremely doubtful that there was anyone on earth who could have performed the task that Steiner undertook from 1900 onwards. In 1896 he was perhaps just as ready as he was in 1900. He had served out his apprenticeship in philosophy and in Goetheanism. But no obvious opportunity presented itself from the side of the external world, and it seems no inner voice told him that the time had come to act. So he was uncertain, even anxious, and it was while he was in this condition that he was tempted to deny one of his convictions.
Already before leaving Weimar Steiner had become acquainted with J. H. Mackay, a Scottish-German or German-Scot, who, with Benjamin Tucker, an American, were proponents of a kind of theoretical anarchism, to be clearly distinguished from that terroristic anarchism which in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was responsible for the assassination of so many eminent political leaders. Unfortunately this distinction was not always understood, with the somewhat amusing consequence that the Magazine for Literature was banned in Russia because Rudolf Steiner, its editor, was a friend of the ”dangerous” anarchist J. H. Mackay. Mackay, who had met Steiner at the salon of Gabrielle Reuter in Weimar, took up residence in Berlin in 1898, and the two men now became close friends, Mackay acting as witness when Steiner married Anna Eunike the following year.
Mackay had written a fairly widely circulated novel called The Anarchist and had tried his hand at poems which were too didactic for most tastes, though Steiner claimed to like them. According to Steiner, he was at all times a pure idealist, believing that men should be converted to his viewpoint entirely by persuasion. He also was well aware that before a man could act ethically in a free manner and without any coercion he must have undergone a kind of spiritual conversion. He refused to accept any traditional moral precepts just because they had been imposed by some political or religious authority. Mackay was a disciple of Max Stirner, a thinker about whom Steiner said many favorable things, and he had edited some of Stirner’s writings, although not in agreement with all of them.
Clearly such ”anarchistic” ideas had some similarity with those expressed by Rudolf Steiner in his Philosophy of Freedom, but, as was explained in the last chapter, he believed he had shown in that book that thinking was a spiritual activity and that only through a developed thinking could the human spirit imagine for itself free deeds. Probably Mackay no more understood this concept than Steiner’s other friends had done, but he seems to have been closer to Steiner in other respects, and the friendship between them was a very warm one. Even after they had become separated in later years Steiner continued to speak of him with great warmth, always praising his ”noble and self-reliant” nature. It may have been only for a brief moment, but it does seem that Steiner was tempted by the possibility of using his own philosophy as a basis for Mackay’s political dreams, and for a time he did actually engage in promoting his ethical individualism as a political ideal. His way of discussing this episode so many years later in his autobiography makes it clear that he did indeed regard his inclination of that time as a real temptation.
”It was remote from my intention when I formulated this,” he tells us, ”to make it the basis for a political conception. But the effort was made [by whom?] to draw my mind, with its purely ethical individualism, into a kind of abyss. The effort was made to change this conception from something belonging to the inner being of man into something external. The esoteric was to be diverted into the exoteric.”
Two phrases in this statement are worthy of closer examination—the unexplained repetition of the words ”the effort was made” and ”the esoteric was to be diverted into the exoteric.” It seems clear that the effort of which Steiner speaks was made by hindering powers rather than simply by Mackay and his friends, and the temptation was that an earthly rather than a spiritual goal should be pursued. If Mackay, who had his own following and was a man with wide experience of the world, had indeed taken up the ethical individualism that was at the center of The Philosophy of Freedom, then not only would that ethical individualism have been cheapened and misunderstood, but it would have been thought of as another moral philosophy derived from purely human thinking, instead of being, as Steiner held it to be, the only philosophy consonant with the free activity of the human spirit and a necessary consequence of man’s spiritual nature. In Steiner’s view there can be no truly free act without free spiritual activity. Nothing can be more certain than that Mackay, Tucker, and their friends in adopting Steiner’s ethical individualism would simply have stated his conclusions. These would then have become the moral principles of the ”individualistic anarchism” that they were promoting. These principles, as Steiner said, were noble in themselves, but if they had been preached without relating them to his teachings about spiritual activity, then indeed ”the esoteric” would have been ”diverted into the exoteric.”
For a few years before the end of the century Steiner was thus tempted to speak and think, and did speak and think occasionally, of ethical individualism as if it had been a noble philosophy that could be accepted by ordinary idealistic men and women who had not reached it through spiritual training, and inner development. This period came to an end through an inner experience which can be described only in his own words, an experience which enabled him for the first time to write and talk about Christianity in lectures given to an audience of theosophists. These first lectures which mark the beginning of his real mission were later published under the titles of Mysticism at the Dawn of the Modern Age, and Christianity as Mystical Fact.
”After the time of testing,” he tells us, ”had subjected me to stern battles of the soul, I had to submerge myself in Christianity, and, indeed in the world of spirit itself. . . . What is achieved of the knowledge of spirit in Christianity as Mystical Fact is brought directly out of the world of spirit itself. . . . The true substance of Christianity began germinally to unfold within me as an inner phenomenon of knowledge. About the turn of the century came the testing of soul I have described. The unfolding of my soul rested upon the fact that I had stood in spirit before the Mystery of Golgotha in most inward, most earnest solemnity of knowledge.”28
As a result of this experience and of writing these first books on Christianity, he tells us that ”ethical individualism again stood, after the test, in its rightful place.”
Since the full meaning of these two passages is not self-evident it should be noted that when Steiner speaks of the ”Mystery of Golgotha” he usually refers to the entire sequence of events from the baptism to the ascension of Christ Jesus, though sometimes also he appears to mean only the events from the betrayal at Gethsemane to the ascension. In any event what he clearly means here is his direct experience of the Christ, something he had, as he tells us elsewhere, not experienced before, nor had he paid much attention to the truths of Christianity either in his writings or lectures. From 1900 onward, by contrast, he was to refer frequently to the Philosophy of Freedom as having been inspired by Christianity and what he calls the ”Christ Impulse,” and he explains that the human being cannot attain to ethical individualism in the sense in which he uses the words unless he is filled with the Christ Impulse. The clearest expression of the connection between the two is to be found in a series of three lectures given in 1920 on Thomas Aquinas and last published in English in 1956 under the title of The Redemption of Thinking. The relevant passage follows (page 110 in this edition published by Hodder and Stoughton):
”Just as we have shown that knowledge is ... an event related to objective reality, so ethics, moral behaviour, is shown to be something which the individual, as he passes through the events of this real knowledge-process, experiences intuitively through his moral imagination as objectively real. Thus there arises what is presented in the second part of my Philosophy of Freedom as ”ethical individualism,” which is, in reality, founded upon the Christ-impulse in man, although this is not expressed in the book. There, it is based upon the free spiritual activity which man achieves by changing ordinary thinking into what I called in my book ”pure thinking.” This pure thinking then raises itself to the direct experience of the spiritual world and derives from it the impulses to moral behaviour. This is due to the fact that in the spiritual activity of pure thinking the impulse of love, which otherwise is bound up with man’s physical nature, spiritualises itself, and when the moral imagination discovers the ethical ideals as actual realities in the spiritual world, this spiritualised love becomes the power by means of which they express themselves ‘. . . I have laid special stress upon the ”transformation” of the human soul, and upon the necessity of its being really filled with the Christ-impulse, even in its thought-life. The life of knowledge has been shown to be a real factor in world evolution, as I set out in my book Goethe’s World-Outlook. But this which takes place on the stage of human consciousness is at the same time a cosmic happening, a real event in world-history. Moreover, it is just this event that carries forward towards its fulfilment the world and ourselves within it.”
Rudolf Steiner tells us in his autobiography that his period of testing lasted from the time of his move from Weimar (1897) until the lectures that he gave to the theosophists on Christianity as Mystical Fact (1901). It was during this period that his relationship with Mackay flourished, that he was the editor of the Magazine for Literature (1897 to the end of September, 1900), and became a fairly well known figure in the cultural life of Berlin through his weekly articles in the Magazine and his reviews of plays presented on the Berlin stage, as well as through his membership in various scientific and philosophic societies. These were the last years of waiting before he felt authorized to begin his public mission as teacher of the science of spirit, and it may not seem too surprising that his work during this time seems to stand apart from the rest of his life, having relatively little relationship to what he was doing before and what he did afterwards. Even the marriage with Anna Eunike in 1899 seems to have fulfilled its purpose in his life by the time he embarked on his public mission, and had to be abandoned, like almost everything else from his past when a new life opened up before him.
For a period after his arrival in Berlin Steiner was acutely unhappy because of the circumstances of his living. When Frau Eunike offered him a home again in Friedenau, a suburb of Berlin, he experienced, to use his own words, ”the best of care, after having endured for a time the utter misery of living in an apartment of my own [actually two successive apartments]. Living in the Eunike house made it possible for me to have an undisturbed basis for a life which was both inwardly and outwardly very active.” On October 31st, 1899 Frau Eunike became his wife in a civil ceremony. Steiner himself always remained reticent about this marriage of convenience, saying that ”private relations are not something to be publicized. They do not concern the public.”
It is evident that the situation in Berlin was very different from that in Weimar, where Steiner had lived in the Eunike household as resident tutor of the five children of the newly widowed Anna Eunike. He was then given a part of the house that he could regard as his own where he could entertain his friends. Now that Frau Eunike had moved to Berlin and her daughters would soon be of marriageable age and no longer needed their old tutor, clearly the most suitable solution was for the couple to enter into a civil marriage. A valuable testimony exists which describes how the relationship between the two Steiners appeared to an outsider who later became friends with both of them and was made welcome in their home. This testimony will be given later in the chapter. Here all that needs to be said is that the marriage lasted only for a short time after Steiner had begun his public anthroposophical work. From Herr Rudolph’s memoir, of which some extracts will be given later, it is clear that Anna Steiner disapproved from the beginning of his career as leader of the German section of the Theosophical Society which took her husband completely away from her—though she was to tell her daughter, shortly before her death in 1911 in her fifty-eighth year, that her life with Steiner had been the most beautiful epoch in her life.
The Magazine for Literature edited by Rudolf Steiner had as its official sponsor the Free Literary Society, founded in the year of Goethe’s death. When Steiner took over the magazine it also possessed a recently founded affiliate called the Free Dramatic Society, in which he played an active part, thus becoming involved in the production of experimental plays unlikely to be successful in the commercial theatre. In this work his co-editor Otto Erich Hartleben was associated with him. The theatrical experience of these years was later to be of great benefit to Steiner, helping to make possible the astonishing course in dramatic art that he gave to members of the Anthroposophical Society in Dornach in 1924, during which he showed a remarkable and unexpected familiarity with the drama of the time. He attended the Berlin theatres regularly and wrote reviews of the plays he had seen in the Magazine. However, his reviewing method was highly original, and, by his own account, little understood. Unlike most critics, he refrained from passing judgment on the play or its production. It was his opinion that if the review was, as he attempted to make his own reviews, an ”artistic painting of ideals,” as a result of which the thoughts in the playwright’s mind would arise in imaginative form in the minds of his readers, then the judgment would, or ought to, arise of itself at the same time. There would then be no need to tell the reader what to think of the play, nor should their judgment be swayed by the opinions of the reviewer.
The first play that Steiner produced himself was Hartleben’s translation of Maurice Maeterlinck’s play The Intruder, which he felt to be particularly challenging because of its symbolism. Though Steiner did not at all approve of Maeterlinck’s use of symbols, characterizing them as ”mystical-sentimental,” he regarded it as a part of his task to present them effectively on the stage. Still less did he have any sympathy with the Maeterlinck cult of that period, with its pretensions towards ”spirit.” ”The less it was possible to tell distinctly what lay behind the suggestive symbols, the more many people were enraptured by them,” he commented caustically. In spite of his distaste he found it fascinating to work at the staging of such a play because, as he said, ”the representations of the symbols by appropriate stage means required the managerial function in an unusual degree.” Steiner enjoyed exercising this ”managerial function,” and he liked to make use of and develop his own sense of style. He gave much thought always as to how each play should be staged in accordance with his own understanding of it, while he made full use also of the opportunity he was afforded to give a brief introductory address to the audience when an experimental play was presented. He was able thus, as he tells us, to allow the spirit to permeate his words, even though the audience ”otherwise had no ear for the spirit.”
The Magazine for Literature he used largely as a forum for his own ideas, which he admits were not too well suited for his particular audience, and were not greatly appreciated, even when they were understood. Almost no one could sense what lay behind his words. On one occasion he wrote about the Dreyfus case in France that was dividing public opinion all over Europe, giving ”information that I alone could give.’ (Issues of December 11, 1897 and February 19, 1898) Such information fell on deaf ears, as did his interpretation of Goethe’s fairy story The Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily, which he published in 1899 under the title of Goethe’s Secret Revelation. Steiner tells us that his interpretation was only ”very slightly esoteric,” whereas a later lecture given on the same subject to an audience of theosophists contained much esoteric knowledge. The theosophists were able to accept it fully and asked Steiner to give more talks on similar subjects and in the same vein.
In a lecture given in October, 1918 to an audience of anthroposophists in Dornach, Steiner was to speak very freely of this period of his life and of his experiences in Berlin, much more freely than when he was writing his autobiography at the end of his life. The occasion for this lecture was the appearance of the second edition of The Philosophy of Freedom, the first new edition since its original publication in 1894. Some quotations from this lecture are of considerable interest, as are his characterizations of the life in Berlin and his own attitude towards it.
He began by criticizing openly the ”philistinism” of his Berlin contemporaries, and especially the leading intellectuals who were associated with the Magazine, most of whom were originally subscribers to it, and, in general, the avant-garde of the time. Steiner was more than willing to admit that it was his policies as editor that drove away his original subscribers, making it impossible for the Magazine to pay its way and provide him with a living. ”I acquired it,” he said, ”in order to have a platform for ideas which I considered to be timely, in the true sense of the word, ideas that I could advocate publicly.” When his correspondence with Mackay was published, numerous professors wondered aloud (not too surprisingly considering the reputation of anarchists at that time, and even since!) ”what Steiner was up to,” and gradually many of them cancelled their subscriptions. ”I must admit,” Steiner commented, ”that with the publication of the Magazine I had the happy knack of offending the readers—the readers and not the Spirit of the Age!”
Others were offended by his defense of Emile Zola in the Dreyfus affair, while a young worker who belonged to a group to which Steiner also belonged wrote a critical article in which, to use Steiner’s words, ”he tried to show in his pedantic way that I did not fit into this community, and that he looked upon me as an unpaid peripatetic theologian among a group of people who were anything but unpaid peripatetic theologians, but were at least youthful idealists.” On another occasion in reviewing a new play Steiner tells us that he ”took all the Berlin newspapers to task and told the Berlin critics one and all what I thought of them. This was hardly the way to launch the magazine, but it was a valuable experience for me. Compared with the Weimar days one learned to look at many things from a different angle. But at the back of my mind there always lurked this question: how could the epoch be persuaded to accept the ideas of The Philosophy of Freedom? If you are prepared to take the trouble you will find that everything I wrote for the Magazine is imbued with the spirit of The Philosophy of Freedom. However, the Magazine was not written for modern bourgeois philistines. But of course through these different influences I was gradually forced out.”29
A few years later, when he was writing his autobiography, Steiner said little about such difficulties as these. ”In spite of all the difficulties confronting me,” he wrote, ”it would have been possible to expand the circulation of the weekly if material means had been available to me. But a periodical which could at the utmost afford only the most meager fees, which gave me almost no basis for my own material existence, and for which nothing could be done to make it known, could not thrive upon the limited circulation it had when I took it over,”30 and, of course, still less on the circulation it had when he gave it up, which was considerably lower than when he took it over. When Steiner later founded his own magazine which was called Luzifer-Gnosis, he was able to find a different public which was indeed interested in what he had to say, and this magazine was eventually abandoned only because its editors, Rudolf Steiner and Marie von Sievers, were so deeply involved in other work that they could not find time for it. The Magazine for Literature was directed and had always been directed to a quite different public, and this was no more likely to be interested in Steiner’s esoteric teachings than were the scientific and literary societies to which he belonged in the Berlin years. Not until after 1900 did he find the audience which was genuinely interested in what he had to say, and by that time he too was better prepared to speak, having passed through his years of trial and won the right to do so.
In 1899 another audience presented itself that was always of great interest to Rudolf Steiner, perhaps in part because of his own background as a member of the class to which this audience belonged. Wilhelm Liebnecht, one of the founders of the German Social Democratic party, had organized in the early 1890’s a training school for workers in Berlin in which members of the German working class could attend courses on numerous subjects, higher education thus being opened up for them for the first time. Similar educational institutes (such, for example, as the Cooper Union in New York City, and the Workingmen’s College in London, where, among others, Ruskin taught) were founded elsewhere for the purpose of giving instruction to the working classes. The Working Men’s College in Berlin (as it may best be called in English), founded as it was by a man who was for twenty-six years until his death in 1900 a Social Democratic member of the German Reichstag, was naturally oriented toward Marxism. Wilhelm Liebnecht had worked with Marx in England for a dozen years in his youth, and was completely familiar with his writings. Though he himself disagreed with many of Marx’s conclusions the Working Men’s College was basically Marxist in orientation, and most of the teachers taught according to the principles of dialectical materialism. However, from 1899 to 1904 the College was still primarily interested in the general higher education of the workers, and only from 1908 onwards did it become rather a training ground for Social Democratic party workers. Nevertheless it was probably inevitable that Rudolf Steiner, simply by agreeing to accept a teaching position in the College, was widely regarded at this time as a materialist and Socialist himself—a view certainly not shared by his audience or by those who knew him well.
Fortunately we possess some precious testimony regarding Steiner’s work at the College from two of the students who later published their impressions. One was a young woman, Johanna Muecke, who later became an anthroposophist because of what she had learned from Rudolf Steiner at the College, the other, Alwin Alfred Rudolph, was one of the delegates who first approached Rudolf Steiner with the request to give a course on history at the College. Rudolph did not commit his recollections to paper until forty years later, but his reports of the lectures, as well as his vivid and almost unique account of Steiner in his domestic life at the time of his first marriage, cover the entire period of Steiner’s teaching at the College until the lecture on Monism and Theosophy given on October 8th, 1902 before the Giordano Bruno Bund. Rudolph tells us that when he first called on Rudolf Steiner to ask him if he would lecture to the workers neither he nor anyone else on the program committee knew Steiner personally. Two men in touch with labor circles had suggested that a poet of their acquaintance should give the history course. The poet proposed Rudolf Steiner and gave them his address, whereupon the delegation called upon him at that address without giving him any advance warning of their visit.
”We were ushered into a large room full of light, which was a living room and study at the same time, with a desk of enormous proportions by the window, laden to overflowing with books and papers. Dr. Rudolf Steiner stood in the middle of the room, straight and slim and dressed in black, with a small untrimmed moustache on his upper lip, and wearing a long broad bow tie. He greeted us in the most kindly manner. There was a most welcoming atmosphere in the room, so much so that we at once felt like good friends, without any shyness or reserve. An older lady in the room was introduced to us, but we could not imagine who she was, though we gathered that the young woman who opened the door to us was her daughter. Actually I ought not to speak of them as ”ladies,” because they were really two simple women, openminded and many sided. Before we could state our mission we were invited to the great table where a coffee machine was soon put to work. The daughter brought in some tea-things and her mother a plate full of pastries, which Dr. Steiner took and offered to us, saying that we must first refresh ourselves. They were delicious white tartlets, and we were told they were made by a local bakery in accordance with a recipe which was a strictly guarded secret and had been invented by the poet, Steiner’s friend Ludwig Jacobowski, [founder of the society Die Kommenden of which we shall hear later]. We enjoyed a really delightful coffee hour . . .” When the visit was over and Steiner had agreed in principle to give the history course, ”he shook hands with us, telling us that we should come again very soon and tell him what we should like to hear in his lectures. He believed he had taken on a most worth while task, but he forgot altogether to ask about the fees. We were sure that we had found a history teacher, and an extraordinary one. But all we were authorized to pay was eight marks.”
When Rudolph and his colleagues returned to the Council responsible for arranging the lectures, they were criticized for not having obtained Steiner’s agreement to accept such a small fee. So there was nothing left but to return to his house and clinch the final arrangements including the title of his course. From his account of this second meeting it would appear that Rudolph went by himself, and in his memoirs he declared that never had he received such a friendly reception as he now received from any of the men or women he had enlisted as lecturers, even though so many of the others were fellow-workers in the Social Democratic party; nor, he relates, had any of them had the firm handshake given him by Rudolf Steiner, who advanced to meet him as soon as he was announced and took both his hands in his own. The same openness was shown by mother and daughter, and though Steiner’s face looked like that of an ascetic, his smile was always warm and gay. It never seemed to be an inconvenience when anyone visited him even though he might be hard at work at the great desk, which was always so full of papers and books that only enough space remained for a single sheet of paper on which he was writing. What he always desired to hear from his visitors was the impression made on them by a work of literature or something else that had been read, never what it contained, which, indeed, he always seemed to know.
It was not at all clear to Rudolph at first what relationship the two women had to him. In themselves he says they were both open and kind, but they had such an evident feeling of reverence for Dr. Steiner that a matrimonial relationship seemed to be out of the question. Frau Eunike always waited for him to speak and answer any question, although she was willing to engage in conversation with Rudolph when occasion offered. When the coffee machine was again brought in, in order to make conversation Rudolph asked how the water was heated as he could see no fuel. After he had asked if it was charcoal Steiner said that it was not, but that it was spirit (presumably methylated spirit), which led to a joke about spirit, playing on the various meanings of the word. At this Frau Eunike jumped up and showed Rudolph a ragdoll which had been sitting on a little table and told him to look carefully at it. It was a ”masterly likeness” of Rudolf Steiner, dressed in the characteristic black coat and black bow. She lifted the seam of the black coat to reveal a bottle of French cognac. ”The cognac is a gift of Ludwig Jacobowski,” she said, ”and its meaning (inside the rag doll) is that ‘the whole body is spirit.’”
The remark struck the materialist Rudolph, as he says, most strangely, and he was still pondering it while he was eating the pastries she pressed upon him. Then Steiner began to speak about the lectures he intended to give, just as if everything had been agreed. So Rudolph proposed a course of ten lectures, each lasting two hours including questions and a discussion, preferably on Thursdays. Frau Eunike reminded him that he gave lectures to Ludwig Jacobowski’s Die Kommenden on that evening, but Steiner replied that Jacobowski would be quite happy if he turned up some time after ten at night. Still he would not give Rudolph the chance to mention fees, but asked when the course was to begin, insisting that it would be quite unnecessary to remind him in writing. He would be there; and if no change was made thereafter—and he made it clear he disliked changes—he would be there at the same time each Thursday for the ten weeks agreed upon.
The evening of the first lecture arrived. The rather small hall was full to overflowing, and more seats and tables had to be brought in, even though Steiner was not at the time very well known in Berlin. At five minutes to eight the Council was fidgeting, wondering whether he would indeed arrive. But promptly at two minutes to eight he stood in the doorway with the two women standing just behind him. He looked very happy at such a large audience of working men. Forms were thrust in front of him to be filled up, and he did this in the two minutes remaining before the lecture hour, beginning on the dot of eight. He had no notes with him. He just gave a brief look at the faces before him and spoke. According to Rudolph everyone present recognized at once that here was a man of all-embracing knowledge that it was his life-task to give out, and everyone had something to learn from him. He spoke with an inner warmth, and his words went straight to the hearts of his listeners, as he showed how spiritual forces were everywhere active influencing the course of historical events. He did not so much convince as awaken the faculty of judgment in the listeners, and even in that first lecture, according to Rudolph, he won them over. To him this was true greatness. Later in his memoir Rudolph spoke of the widespread feeling expressed by one of the party members who attended the lectures: ”What a pity Rudolf Steiner was not born a German, so that he could have been elected to the Reichstag.” Since the Social Democratic party already possessed a considerable number of seats in that body Steiner’s election would certainly have been feasible though it is scarcely possible to imagine what would have been the effect of his particular kind of eloquence, talent, and spiritual knowledge on the assembled members!
Fraulein Muecke was also present at Steiner’s first lecture at the College, and it is interesting to compare her account with that of Rudolph. She was for many years secretary of the Committee of the College that dealt with programs, and she tells us that history, on which Steiner had lectured, was ”a special child of sorrow” to her Committee. The history courses ordinarily consisted of ten lectures, but usually the students became rapidly bored with the way the subject was taught, and most of them ceased to attend—whereupon the lecturers usually gave up. Thus a rather small room had been purposely provided for Rudolf Steiner’s opening lecture, and it was her recollection that only about fifty students were present-though perhaps Rudolph’s remark that the room was full was also correct, since the room may have been very small.
”A slender dark man mounted the platform,” she records, ”and a powerful voice rang out. To us North Germans his accent sounded a little foreign, but everyone listened with the greatest attention. At the close of the lecture there was a lively and excited conversation among the students. One of them, a specially active comrade and a very wideawake person, came to me and said with a certain amount of pleasure ‘Well, that was not by any means the materialistic view of history, but it was interesting.’ ”
Fraulein Muecke, who later became an anthroposophist, adds the comment: ”Probably it was exactly this non materialistic element in Dr. Steiner’s lectures, and the suggestion of a living spirituality in them that was soon to make these lectures so valuable for an audience that thought materialistically in accordance with the training received from the Party, but many student members of which at that time had strongly idealistic feelings. For whereas on former occasions the audience tended to dwindle away, now it grew larger and larger, so that a few months later Dr. Steiner’s courses already began with about 200 listeners. It was especially new to us how Dr. Steiner led his hearers to ask questions, and to participate actively in what they heard. Formerly we had listened quietly to the lecture and then gone home, more or less satisfied or tired. Now a lively interest rapidly developed, and many questions were asked at the end of the lecture. These were always answered in a most friendly and conscientious manner. All objections were listened to in a kindly way, and received explanations that were always to the point. Very soon the lectures lasted until midnight or even later. But it was partly the lecturer’s fault that we were so insatiable because of the lively way in which he entered into everything.
”It was curious to see how two different worlds here came in contact with one another,” she goes on. ”From Rudolf Steiner everything streamed out of the pure spiritual. By contrast his hearers, although because of their position in life they knew and felt nothing but the mechanism of the industrial age, had within them a human soul born out of the spiritual, and filled with unconscious longings and aspirations.” Frl. Muecke then reports how Steiner went on to lecture on German literature, both prose and poetry, on Indian, Persian and Arabic culture, on the history of philosophy, chemistry, and the history of industrialism. He also offered instruction in public speaking, and corrected ‘all papers submitted to him with such care that, according to Frl. Muecke, ”many of the students really accomplished things which previously could never have been expected of them.”
Steiner tells us in his autobiography how he made it a condition for speaking at the College that he should be allowed to present history ”according to my own views of the course of human evolution, and not in the Marxist style in which this was customary in Social Democratic circles.” When this condition was accepted he felt it was no longer any concern of his that the College had been founded by the Social Democratic party. What interested him was that he now for the first time had the opportunity to teach adult members of the proletariat, and he felt it a challenge to learn to speak to them, using forms of expression he had never had to employ before. Moreover the men and women in his audience took the materialistic view of history for granted, and could scarcely conceive of the possibility that it was not only economic, but also—perhaps even more decisively—spiritual forces that determined the course of history. According to his own account he succeeded in silencing their objections to his presentation by conceding at once that economic forces had been of very great importance since the sixteenth century but scarcely at all in earlier centuries. This concession enabled him to speak about ancient and medieval history just as he wished, without further objections from his audience.
On October 27, 1918, in a lecture given in Dornach to members he spoke somewhat differently from what he was later to write in his autobiography. Here he tells us that he ”could speak on any subject at all except that of freedom. To speak of freedom seemed extremely dangerous. I had only one follower who always supported me whenever I delivered my libertarian tirades, as the others were pleased to call them . . . This man (a Pole) always supported me in my defense of freedom against the totalitarian programme of socialism.” That this insistence on freedom was not acceptable to the Socialist leaders, who eventually decided to oust him in spite of the support he had from his actual students, was emphasized by Steiner in a later passage in the same lecture.
”I had attempted to introduce spiritual ideas and was to a certain extent successful, but I was gradually driven out. One day I was defending spiritual values in a meeting attended by hundreds of my students, and only four members who had been sent by the party executive to oppose me were present. Nonetheless they made it impossible for me to continue. I still vividly recall my words: ‘If people wish socialism to play a part in future evolution then liberty of teaching and liberty of thought must be permitted.’ Thereupon one of the sycophants sent by the party leadership declared: ‘In our party and its schools there can be no question of freedom, but only of reasonable constraint.’” To this remark Steiner added the comment: ”One must not imagine that the modern proletariat is not thirsting for spiritual nourishment! In fact it has an insatiable craving for it. But the nourishment which it is offered is largely that in which it already firmly believes, namely positivism, scientific materialism, or else an indigestible pabulum that offers stones instead of bread. The Philosophy of Freedom was bound to meet with opposition here too, because its fundamental impulse, the impulse of freedom, has no part in this most modern movement (Socialism).”31
In this lecture given just at the end of the War, which was quite certainly delivered extempore, and to a Dornach audience, Steiner was trying to sum up a long period of teaching in a few minutes, and there is no doubt that in spite of his views on freedom, and even of his teachings on spiritual matters which he was already giving as General Secretary of the German Section of the Theosophical Society, the directors of the Working Men’s College left him ample latitude for teaching as he wished, and it would seem probable that this was permitted precisely because of the popularity of his teachings with his students. When, as he says, the hostility of a few leaders put an end to his contract, he had already been teaching at the College for more than five years, from early in 1899 to late in 1904.
Herr Rudolph remained in touch with Steiner after the latter began his regular lectures on different subjects at the Working Men’s College, and even offered to help him in his work on the Magazine for Literature. This work brought him into intimate contact with the Steiner-Eunike household. When Steiner married Frau Eunike in October 1899 Rudolph reports that there was no apparent change in their relationship. ”She continued to look after him,” he tells us, ”with motherly attachment and modesty, and retained her reserve.” She and one of her daughters used to accompany her husband when he went on excursions with his students into the surrounding countryside. When the day was fine, Rudolph tells us, they would all lie on the grass and Steiner would talk on all kinds of subjects. ”He would talk about books and the theatre, about old and new literature, about the Greek poets and philosophers, about the wisdom of Confucius, the Altar of Pergamum, Emile Zola and his defense of Dreyfus. Then suddenly he would switch to talking about the flowers in the grass, explaining to us what they were. He talked about the bracken, and about flying insects. Once when we thought we had found a rare caterpillar Steiner was able to tell us to what family it belonged, and he gave us an exact description of it. He seemed to us to be a silo brimful of knowledge of the world.”
Fraulein Muecke also included in her memoir an incident from one of these excursions. ”On one occasion,” she wrote, ”several young people walked by his side and spoke of their lives. One of them cried out impetuously, ‘Why do we have so little pleasure in life, and yet everyone would like so much to be happy?’ Dr. Steiner replied, ‘Yes, but perhaps life is not given us in order that we may be happy.’ ‘Whatever else can it be for?’ said the young man, quite taken aback. ‘Well, suppose we had life in order to fulfil a task,’ Steiner replied. These words were uttered in a very kindly tone, but with such deep emphasis that we all walked on for a while in silence, and even though I did not understand them fully, the words remained firmly fixed in my memory. Already at the time such power lay in his words that they did not fade from one’s mind.”
On June 17, 1900, Steiner gave a lecture to members of the Typesetters and Printers Union on the five hundredth anniversary of Gutenberg’s invention of printing. As far as I have been able to ascertain, this was the largest audience ever addressed by Rudolf Steiner; over 7000 assembled in the Busch circus, the only auditorium able to hold such a huge throng. The lecture, of which only an extended summary exists, was not strikingly original in its observations, but Rudolf Steiner connected the discovery of Gutenberg very effectively with the change in human consciousness which began about the beginning of the fifteenth century to which he later gave the name of ”consciousness soul.” Gutenberg, he told his audience of workers, placed the book in men’s hands just at the time when they had the greatest need for it—not least in that one of the first books to be printed in Germany and distributed on a wide scale was Luther’s masterly translation of the Bible, and without the Bible in the vernacular the Reformation would have scarcely been able to take root. With the arrival of the printed book men were given the tool for conceptual thinking. Ideas which would never have occurred to the vast majority of them were revealed to them through the medium of the book—even though falsehood could also be spread, and charlatans could be believed often only because their notions had been printed in books. The tendency to believe what is seen in printed form in books has remained, even though lies can as easily be printed as spoken. When all books had to be written out by hand and copied, most education was given by word of mouth, and there was a natural inclination to accept on the basis of authority what a speaker said. Thus when printing made books accessible to the multitude a man could read for himself and still feel quite free, accepting or rejecting the authority of the writer in accordance with his own judgment. The great pioneers in the new scientific knowledge, men such as Copernicus and Kepler, could make their ideas known to an ever larger public, as could also those who discovered and described new scientific facts. When knowledge of the outer world was not valued, and only what could be thought by the mind of man was considered important, the printed book was not so necessary. The invention of printing favored the development of the individual personality, and it now became possible to acquire a wider and more up to date view of the world, a real world outlook; and here Rudolf Steiner cited the first newspaper, which appeared in 1505. In this newspaper appeared news about Brazil, which had been discovered only in 1500. Men could also now play an active part in world and national affairs, especially with the development of the newspaper, pamphleteering, and the like, and they could arrive at their own judgment through access to more information. Even popes no longer received news only from their envoys, but from the press, while scholars could have their work read by a wider public than their university colleagues when they published their findings in printed books.
The printed word, Dr. Steiner declared, is ”a co-creator of modern culture,” especially in so far as man becomes for the first time a true individual and wider horizons open up before him. Men from different cultures and different spheres of life can now forge a new unity among themselves because they all have available to them books available equally to the others. The Brethren of the Common Life in Holland, medieval pioneers in education for the lay public, began their work in the fourteenth century before the inventing of printing; but this work took on a new lease of life when they began to print good educational works which could be widely circulated. In the late fifteenth century (1473 onwards) the King of Hungary (Matthias Corvinus) encouraged printing, and as a result there was a great cultural upsurge in Hungary, while his contemporary ruler, the absolutist Turkish sultan Bayazid II, forbade printing on pain of death. In concluding Steiner again emphasized how important printing had proved for the study and understanding of history, and how much more intimately we know modern history than that of earlier times.
This lecture, though not on any subject directly connected with what later was taught by Steiner as Anthroposophy, not only demonstrates the wide range of learning possessed by him at this time, but all through what he said is visible the distinction he was later to make between the ”intellectual soul” and the consciousness soul, and the difference in man’s consciousness during the medieval period, which marked the end of the age of the intellectual soul, and during the modern age since the fifteenth century. Thus, as always, he wished to emphasize how history is to be understood as a picture of the evolution of human consciousness, and why the student of history should always look for symptoms of this evolution. Gutenberg’s invention of printing was just such a symptom, not only occurring in the first century of the consciousness soul, but making possible all its subsequent achievements. In 1900 Steiner had no wish to make these things explicit before an audience of printers; but from the manner in which he spoke and the illustrations he used it is clear that he wished, without being explicit, to lay the foundation for the understanding of the evolution of consciousness in the minds of his hearers.
Rudolf Steiner was also closely associated with two other organizations at the turn of the century, and both of these provided him with audiences for his lectures. One was the Giordano Bruno Bund, founded by Wilhelm Bölsche, a man who was later to be criticized in strong terms by Rudolf Steiner, especially for his ”philistinism,” and Bruno Wille, author of a philosophical work much admired by Steiner. With the aid of a liberal theologian named Theodore Kappstein these men founded a Free Academy in Berlin. Here Rudolf Steiner gave the history courses, which continued until as late as the beginning of 1905, since he remained acceptable to the Academy long after he had become a theosophist. But almost from the beginning he had his difficulties with the Giordano Bruno Bund, although he was one of its founders. The Bund adopted as its own a philosophy that Steiner characterized as ”spiritual-monistic,” more in keeping, as it thought, with the ideas of the original Giordano Bruno, martyred by the Catholic Church in 1600, than with the monism of Ernst Haeckel, which it regarded as excessively materialistic. Steiner gave occasional lectures to the Bund, including one on medieval scholasticism that greatly upset its members, as well as the lecture on Theosophy that will be discussed at the end of this chapter.
More in accord with Steiner’s developing ideas was a society called Die Kommenden (The Coming Age) founded by his intimate friend Ludwig Jacobowski, who died not long afterwards at the early age of 30. The society he founded lived on and Steiner delivered many lectures to it, including his memorial address on the death of Nietzsche. The membership was made up of writers, artists, scientists, and persons interested in the arts. Since Die Kommenden did not subscribe to any particular group of ideas it was more tolerant than the Giordano Bruno Bund, and, indeed, was quite willing for Steiner to speak on Christianity, if he wished. At the very moment that he was being installed as General Secretary of the German Section of the Theosophical Society he was engaged in giving a cycle of lectures to Die Kommenden on the subject of From Buddha to Christ, a topic that would at that time have been unacceptable even to the theosophists. It was only after Steiner had become well known as leader of the theosophists that he ceased to be acceptable as a lecturer to Die Kommenden, when, as Steiner puts it in his autobiography, ”I appeared to be stamped as a theosophist. It was not really the thing itself; it was the name, and the association with a society, that no one wished to have.”
By contrast with this attitude on the part of the intellectual élite of Berlin, Steiner was able to continue with his lectures to the working men in their College until 1904, as we have seen, and it was not his theosophical association that led to their cessation. Of course in his lectures to the working men he never spoke on subjects that were obviously theosophical, even if his spiritual knowledge underlay all that he had to say to them.
Steiner’s relationship with the Giordano Bruno Bund was necessarily an awkward one. The Bund opposed the ideas of Haeckel, which Steiner had publicly defended when Haeckel was attacked by theologians. He always said that Haeckel’s theory of evolution when rightly understood was entirely compatible with his own teachings regarding the spiritual origins of man. On the other hand Steiner was critical of Haeckel’s notions of ”spirit.” In this respect the ideas of the two men, if we may simplify a little, were almost exact opposites, as Haeckel held that all spirit had a material basis while Steiner regarded matter as an aspect of spirit. Steiner’s own ideas of monism, as expressed, in particular, in the last chapter of The Philosophy of Freedom, differed essentially from those of the members of the Bund, who with scarcely any exceptions were strongly anticlerical, while in their desire to be modern and up to date they accepted without question most of the scientific theories of the time. Thus, though they did not like to be thought of as thoroughgoing materialists like Haeckel their idea of spirit was extremely vague, and they were inclined to stress their monism while playing down any spiritual ideas they had.
This attitude was found increasingly irritating by Steiner, who purposely tried to stir up the Bund by giving a lecture on Thomas Aquinas, in which he presented the medieval theologian as a true monist. ”He obviously saw in the Unity of the Godhead the Monon underlying everything in the universe,” he told his audience, a statement that was found extremely shocking by members of the audience and by all the main leaders of the Bund, who had been brought up to believe that the Middle Ages were a period of intellectual darkness, the very reverse of their own enlightened age. They spoke of Steiner’s lecture on Thomas as an ”attempt to smuggle in Catholicism.” ”Here we are,” Steiner reported them as saying, ”taking all possible pains to deal Catholicism its death blow; and now comes a member of this very Giordano Bruno Bund and takes to defending Catholicism” (the same Catholicism that had burned Giordano Bruno as a heretic).”32
On this occasion some influential members supported Steiner’s right to speak as he wished, and he was not expelled from the Bund for his ”heresy.” But when soon after returning from England where he had attended a Theosophical Congress in July, 1902 he delivered a lecture to the Bund on Monism and Theosophy, and defended his theosophical viewpoint, opinion in the Bund ran strongly against him. Even his friend Alwin Rudolph could not follow him along his new path, and soon afterwards he left Berlin to make a new home for himself in Switzerland. Forty years later he recorded his experience of this lecture in a memoir, telling at the same time of his four years’ association with Steiner, whom he never saw again. Most of what follows is drawn from this memoir, which may not be accurate in details, based as it is on an old man’s memory. Only a short summary of the lecture itself given to an audience of about 250 persons exists, and this also has been used. The lecture and report will conclude this chapter, leaving Steiner’s relations with Theosophy and his appointment as the first General Secretary of the Theosophical Society for the next chapter.
As already noted Steiner travelled to London to attend a Congress of the Theosophical Society in July, 1902. He was accompanied by Fraulein Marie von Sievers, who was later to become his second wife, and was from the beginning an active collaborator in the theosophical and later anthroposophical work. In London he met leading members of the Theosophical Society, including Annie Besant, and final decisions were taken as a result of which he took over the leadership of the Theosophical Movement in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria-Hungary. When he returned to Berlin from this Congress, Rudolph found him much changed, even in appearance—he had shaved off his moustache and was wearing a bowler hat!— and he seemed to have placed a distance between himself and his former friends and students. ”The intimacy we experienced with him before was never recovered,” Rudolph reports, and it cannot have been too great a surprise to him that the long awaited lecture on Monism and Theosophy was not at all to his taste and revealed a Rudolf Steiner that he had never known before.
When Steiner entered the hall, contrary to his usual custom he looked straight out into the room and above the heads of his audience. His lecture was a long one, and began with a strong statement dissociating himself from the movement known as ”spiritualism.” Such a statement was necessary because the founder of Theosophy, H.P. Blavatsky, had been a gifted medium, and many of the most important theosophical books had been written by authors who claimed they had received communications from various so-called ”Masters,” who were no longer alive if they ever had been. The communications were, as a rule, received while in a condition of trance, or at all events when not fully conscious.
After his opening remarks on spiritualism Steiner declared that he had in no way changed his long held view that any serious philosophy of life—and Theosophy, he insisted, was such a serious philosophy—must be in accord with the findings of natural science, as long as these findings are genuine facts, properly verified by scientific means. However, scientists make a mistake when they adhere to a materialistic philosophy not justified by the scientific facts. By contrast the new philosophy of life that has become vitally necessary should be in accord with idealistic philosophy, as well as with the facts established by science. Haeckel’s materialistic theory of evolution was certainly in accordance with the facts so far as they are known, but the theory is unable to explain the existence and development of man. Nor will chemical investigation of the brain ever lead to any information about the life of the spirit. It was clear that the gap between religion and science was growing ever wider. Adolf Harnack, the noted theologian, had even declared himself as happy to find that science could make no contribution to his own specialty while at the same time the English freethinker Robert Ingersoll was insisting that all talk of the spirit was meaningless, and that ideas were nothing but transformed foodstuffs—as were works of genius like the plays of Shakespeare!
By contrast to these men a German philosopher, I.H. Fichte, son of the more famous Johann Gottlieb Fichte, had stated that it was man’s true task to transform philosophy into ”theosophy,” by introducing the idea of God into it, while at the same time giving the word theosophy a respectable German pedigree. It is not man’s task, Rudolf Steiner declared with great emphasis, simply to observe the facts of nature, but to perceive the divine element in nature. New means must be found for investigating the human soul without doing violence to the norms of natural science, and religion must unite itself once more with science as in ancient times. For this purpose it was necessary to develop a true theosophy, entirely separate from hypnotism and somnambulism, phenomena that can be investigated scientifically but have nothing to do with theosophy. In conclusion Steiner referred to a picture he had seen in Brussels, whose meaning he had tried without success to convey to Rudolph and his friends. In his picture the Belgian painter Antoine Wiertz had portrayed a giant who was holding in his hands weapons of war and other ”attributes of modern culture,” beside whom his wife and children had shrunk to the size of pygmies. The picture was entitled ”The Man of the Future,” and Steiner, in concluding his lecture, urged his audience to act and think in such a manner that they would not appear to men of the future as pygmies.
It was evident from the reception of this lecture that Steiner had converted very few of his audience to his thesis that the scientific monism of the present should be permeated by religious impulses. According to Rudolph’s account, at the end of the lecture not a hand moved, no one clapped or even whispered, no vote of thanks was proposed, while the chairman of the meeting seemed to ”have a load on his shoulders.” The audience dispersed quietly, and Steiner was never again asked to address the Bund. Rudolph himself broke all relations with Rudolf Steiner, as we have seen, though with ”infinite regret.” Forty years later he wrote:
”Four decades have passed, but I still treasure the rich experiences of knowledge, the awakening of my faculties of judgment and observation, and the totally new direction given to my life. I still see the tall erect form of Rudolf Steiner, speaking like no other speaker before or since. But he had to follow his new mission, and whatever he did, he did fully. The spiritual world was a reality to him, and he had to live in it; and the literary world in which he had hitherto lived had to be abandoned.”
Soon afterwards, Rudolph added, Steiner removed himself altogether from the public life of Berlin, although he did, as we have seen, continue to give lectures at the Workingmen’s College and the Free Academy that he had helped to found. ”From one day to another” he gave up his apartment and the whole material basis of his life, but according to Rudolph, he didn’t care since if necessary he could live on bread and water. In fact it was not until the following year that he gave up his apartment and separated from his wife, who was present at the lecture to the Giordano Bruno Bund but was obviously fundamentally opposed to what her husband was doing, and showed it in her face and attitude.
By contrast to Anna Steiner and Alwin Rudolph, Fraulein Muecke was greatly interested by the lecture, and in this she was far from alone. She described later to Dr. Wachsmuth how the members of the audience stood about in the street afterward until three o’clock in the morning, talking about Theosophy and spiritualism, trying to make sense of what Dr. Steiner had said. Next day when she saw him she asked him outright if Theosophy was spiritualism, to which he replied that he had ”never been a materialist and the spiritualists are the worst materialists of all.” He then categorically dissociated himself from such bypaths which tend, he said, to lead the spirit into the sphere of the senses instead of releasing it from the chains of materialistic thought. Fraulein Muecke, as we have seen, eventually became a theosophist and then an anthroposophist, playing an important part in the affairs of the society for many years.
A week after the famous lecture of October 8th, 1902 Steiner was present at a small meeting of the Giordano Bruno Bund at which the lecture was discussed, some members of the Bund defending him by declaring that Theosophy should not be condemned by people who knew little or nothing about it. Members, in their view, ought to keep an open mind and at least give Steiner the benefit of the doubt. Steiner intervened several times in the discussion. He explained that even the ancient Vedanta philosophy of India had been a kind of monism, and he insisted that even though some theosophists had had dealings with mediums, thus becoming involved in spiritualism, his own path was totally different. What mediums said in their seances had no philosophical or scientific value, and it was, in his view unethical, even immoral to pay any attention to them. His leading supporter at the meeting, Otto Lehmann-Russböldt, the second president of the Bund, concluded it by telling Steiner that as far as he himself was concerned, the programme for Theosophy as formulated by him would always be welcome, even though ”the Indian vocabulary of traditional Theosophy certainly needed to be sifted to make it comprehensible in the West,” as he was sure Steiner intended to do. Even so, the general spirit of the meeting still seemed more against than favorable to him, and it is a fact that he never again did give a lecture to the Giordano Bruno Bund. Thereafter by his own deliberate choice his path lay rather with the Theosophical Society, which, in spite of all its weaknesses, and the difficulties that Steiner almost from the beginning had with it, did provide him with the forum he needed. The answer to the question he had so often asked himself ”Must I forever keep silent?” was about to be answered, as we shall see in the next chapter.
Rudolf Steiner: Herald of a New Epoch