Shengren – Chapter – Rudolf J. L. Steiner

Rudolf Joseph Lorenz Steiner was an Austrian esoteric and theosopher. An esoteric is someone who has secret knowledge, and a theosopher is a religious philosopher. Steiner was a complicated and erratic man; a cultist and self-declared psychic, but also an educator and school reformer (in a way, most cult leaders are). Steiner was a leading figure in the so-called Anthroposophy movement, the self-proclaimed ‘spiritual sciences’. A case in point is Steiner’s ‘Waldorf education’, a less competitive, more humanistic approach in learning which spread throughout Europe and the United States like a wild fire. Steiner believed in reincarnation and sagely beings. He stuffed his writings on the ‘Destination of Man’ with hundreds of Indian loanwords such as prana (‘LIFE-FORCE’), linga sharira (‘human ether body’), Kama (‘SENTIENT SOUL’), Rupa (‘SOUL-BODY or ‘Shape’), and… wait for it: Kama manas (the ‘emotional-thought soul’)! Steiner’s English translator Elizabeth Douglas Shields, in her foreword to Steiner’s Theosophy (1910), explains why she kept ‘the names chosen by the author to describe the higher bodies of man’ for the simply reason that foreign-sounding names are psychological effective: ‘Readers will find that they revert with primitive strength to the ancient power of names, and a word pictures and also mnemonics of what they represent. They constitute, in this way, distinct forces, too valuable to be withheld from the English reading public.’[1]

When Steiner joined the Theosophical Society of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky in the United States, he clashed with her over leadership. Blavatsky already called herself a ‘theosopher’ –a kind of intellectual chimera between a theologist and a philosopher. The term is wilful, because, technically, a religious philosopher is the opposite of a theologist. A theologist uses the philosophical approach for the study of religion. A theosopher uses the religious approach for the study of philosophy.

Steiner admired and aped other spiritual leaders such as Charles Webster Leadbeater, an occultist and early member of the Theosophical Society, Annie Besant, an English-Hindu psychic, and the Hindu writer and self-declared reincarnation of Jesus Christ, Jiddu Krishnamurti. When his arrangement with the Theosophical society in New York dissolved, he founded his own German Theosophical Society, and later also co-founded the Anthroposophische Gesellschaft in Switzerland.

It is not just the politics that were Eurocentric. Theosophy and Anthroposophy are not Oriental disciplines, as the two are clearly rooted in European mysticism. They do however, as explained, try to legitimize the universality of their cult by way of reference to ancient Buddhist or Hindu names and memes.

In Germany, Rudolf Steiner was known as artist, educator, stage writer, philosopher, and mystic. He was not considered a sage (Weiser). In America, however, that was the case: Layman sages and political sages abundant: George Washington and Benjamin Franklin (the politicians and former presidents of the United States) have been referred o as sages.[2] The word ‘sage’ was loosely applied to Goethe by no others than William Wordsworth and Robert Southey, and even T. S. Eliot, in his talk on ‘Goethe as Sage’ could freely say what no German speaker was able to express: ‘The true sage is rarer than the true poet!’ [3]

Steiner was not considered the sage he wanted to be, because he was living in the wrong country. Worse, he couldn’t be a real philosopher either; his theosophy and anthroposophy and the Waldorf humanism in particular were considered pseudoscience or at best pedagogy, not a philosophical system. Steiner’s credentials were not university-level professional work. Instead, he wrote about biblical topics, symbolism, Lucifer, Satan, diabolism, alien powers and many other obscurities[4]. German mainstream scholarship called him an ‘autodidact, with a poor teacher’ and ‘gypsy-intellectual.’[5] Not uncommon for practitioners at the fringes of society, he was accused of class treason. On a side note, the contempt of a militarized nation-state’s academic class for self-taught, semi-educated and unconventional educators has been observed in militarized Japan, too. Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, a contemporary of Steiner and the founder of a new Buddhist movement in Japan was ridiculed and persecuted by the scholarly class.[6] In contrast to class societies such as Germany and Japan, how very different was the situation in the United States: John Dewey, a maverick educator and the founder of pragmatism, was embraced by the academic elite, and given all the support he needed – despite his modest background.

Eventually, the legacy of Rudolf Steiner and his ideas about education were properly summarized in an article by Hellmuth Vensky in the German Zeit Geschichte: ‘Rudolf Steiner – Genius or Nutcase? For the anthroposophist he was the greatest idol of the 20th century, for his critics he was founder of a cult. Steiner’s ideas are [widely] practiced – despite little backing from the scientific community.’[7] Maybe, just may be, if the so-called German ‘scientific community’ did not permanently press those individuals to the fringes of society, such people would not be left to extreme isolation and loneliness and instead could develop their good character and lead the community by example and virtue. And who knows, some of them might be regarded as sages one day. So far, however, there has been none and Steiner.

[1] Shields, 1910

[2] De Costa, 1876

[3] in Argyle, 2002, chapter 4

[4] see Steiner biography by Stein, 1980, p. 94 ff.

[5] Tucholsky, 1924

[6] Bethel, 1973

[7] Vensky, 2011

Pattberg, Thorsten (2011), Shengren – Above Philosophy and Beyond Religion, LoD Press, New York