Hunger for anthroposophy?

May 2022

The relationship between Rudolf Steiner's views and today's dominant forms of educational and scientific thinking. Questions for Wolfgang Müller, journalist with NDR for many years and author of »Zumutung Anthroposophie«.

Erziehungskunst | Anthroposophy is a very demanding subject, not easy to come to grips with. How did you approach it?

Wolfgang Müller | There are, it seems to me, very different approaches. Some probably experience the moment when they become convinced when they see how Waldorf education tries to take the individual children and young people seriously in their uniqueness; others when they observe how anthroposophically inspired agriculture deals with nature. For me, it went by a different route. I became more and more convinced by the way Rudolf Steiner interprets the cultural development of humanity and makes it understandable. That, although it is very different from what you hear at universities, just seemed to me deeper and more explanatory.

EK | You speak – in an educational context – of taking the individual seriously. Isn't that what good education has always done?

WM | Absolutely. That is something universally human, or at least it should be. Nevertheless, we have to see that the common cultural patterns go in a different direction. There the idea tends to be: there is a kind of norm that individuals should live up to as far as possible. Or to put it more in terms of school: there is a curriculum, preferably optimised for Pisa, and school is – to put it bluntly – the fulfilment agency that is supposed to implement it and transport it into the individual heads.

Looking at things this way, any deviation or failure to fulfil the norm naturally appears as a problem. And people who, for example, have certain limitations and cannot possibly fulfil this norm will always be perceived as deficient. They themselves, in their own essence, will hardly be seen.

EK | And what would be the anthroposophical view?

WM | It basically turns the whole thing on its head. It tries to start by looking at the individual human being, to understand them in their position in the world, in their way into the world.

This does not mean that there is no goal orientation. Of course the pupils should learn the central cultural techniques, educate themselves thoroughly and become capable, alert contemporaries. So it's about a balance, a mediation between the interest in the individual and the demands of society. But not through some kind of learning mechanism, but through an understanding of how development and learning really work; namely not as a cold process, but as a living study of the material and above all as an encounter between people. Steiner was very radical in this respect. As a teacher, he once said, you are not only effective through what you do, but above all through who you are. That can be a little frightening and you might ask yourself whether you are up to it. For this also means – and Steiner draws precisely this consequence: "All education is self-education."

So, in the family context or also in Waldorf schools this may not always be entirely successful. But it is there as a guiding star, and that is important.

EK | But it is not at all the guiding star of our time.

WM | That's true. And that is why anthroposophy exists, you might say impudently. But seriously, there are of course deep philosophical questions behind all this. Ultimately it is about the image of the human being. Are we simply very many variations of one species to be treated broadly the same educationally and otherwise in life, or does the diversity have meaning and would even need to be clarified and developed? Not, of course, by cultivating it in a silly way, but in a deeper sense in which, according to Steiner, an inner voice can tell us: "As with every human being, you too are not only reckoned with in general, but you are reckoned with in so far as you are a very personal, individual human being!"

In the end, I understand anthroposophy in this way: something crucial in the world is only born in the human being, and not just in the greatest people or pioneering spirits, but in everyone. This is an extremely philanthropic and, if there is such a thing, democratic philosophy.

EK | But it is precisely this anthroposophical understanding of the human being that is not accepted at all by today's dominant science. This already begins with the fact that there is no access at all to what Steiner calls the human constitutional elements. Why is it so difficult today to follow Steiner and distinguish, for example, between an animated body and the life forces working in it (life body or etheric body) and the body of a deceased person?

WM | Put like that, it sounds a bit condescending to my ears. At the universities, they would probably counter: thank you for pointing that out, but the fact that there is a difference between a living organism and a dead body has not escaped us either. Only, in order to explain this, we do not need the concept of the etheric body. That, they would say, is what has been fascinating since the first beginnings of evolution, that chemical elements can configure themselves and combine in exceedingly diverse molecules in such a way that entirely new possibilities arise. These processes then lead to that amazing, finely tuned interaction we call life, from the simplest single-celled organisms to humans. And death? Well, that is the moment when this extremely complex but also unstable interaction breaks down and everything goes its own way, disintegrates into its elements.

And now it is the anthroposophists' turn, so to speak, to explain that something is missing from this picture.

EK | Do you have a suggestion?

WM | First of all, perhaps a small counter-attack is necessary, namely to note that – if such standards of proof of natural science were applied – entire faculties at the universities would have to close down immediately. Starting with philosophy. But psychology, too, would have no chance, except for its barren empirical statistical branch. No one has, as far as I know, yet been able to pin down an "ego" in the laboratory, for example – one of its central concepts since Freud. Nevertheless, the ego rightly plays a role, and we can probably say that practically all people also have a sense of this inner instance, that is, perceive that there is something in them that steers them through the waves of passion. Not always without turbulence, of course – in anthroposophical terms, this is the confrontation of the ego with the astral, the appraisal and clarification of the level of emotions and impulses. If such appraisal goes even deeper, it reaches the etheric body to which you refer, that is, the powerful layer of bodily processes including the habits that have become too entrenched. Work on the astral body changes certain characteristics of the human being, work on the etheric body can transform their whole soul state, which of course happens more slowly. Steiner once compared it to the advance of the minute hand compared to the hour hand.

That there might be something "to it" can perhaps even be brought home to a rather materialistic mind. Incidentally, Steiner did not invent this, but it coincides with very old Indian perceptions of the human being. And this step ladder – physical body, etheric body, astral body, ego – also becomes evident when we think of the wonderful sequence of worlds from mineral to plant and animal to human being.

EK | A sceptic would probably say: these are nice thought models, but not necessarily, as Steiner claims, realities.

WM | No problem. Steiner himself once said that much would already be gained if these things were at least accepted "as hypotheses". Anthroposophy is not a doctrine of faith, but an offer of development. In order to be able to reach certain insights, we must travel a certain mental path, must gradually develop ourselves as an organ of cognition. Then, according to Steiner, something like the etheric body of a human being can very well be perceived with supersensory perception. There are, that is the basic message in all of this, realities that are not tangible in narrow experimental set ups, and yet are realities nevertheless. Probably even the most important ones of all.

And don't we always suspect this in everyday life anyway? It is already evident in the first stages of a life. When I have a newborn child: yes, I have to change and feed them, but the most important thing is my love and perception. You can count and measure the one thing "scientifically", but not the crucial thing. At best you can try and come close through some silly circumstantial evidence: how often was there eye contact, etc.?

EK | Nevertheless, in your book you emphasise the importance of modern science, also for anthroposophy. You even claim that it is precisely natural science, which destroyed many old religious ideas, that holds "the key to the spirituality of the future". How is that to be understood?

WM | This refers to what I think is a brilliant point in Steiner's thinking. He says, after all, that modern science, for all its limitations, is something deeply necessary for humanity. Through it we have learned to investigate the laws of external nature with a precision and tenacity unknown before. This inevitably shook up – think of Copernicus or Darwin – many a traditional religious world narrative. But now, Steiner says, the laws of the spiritual world must be investigated with the same precision and tenacity; that is, those implied realities which can hardly be grasped by scientific means, but which can very well be investigated in other ways – he refers to "spiritual science". Certainly in a very long, demanding process. But didn't it also take us half a millennium from Copernicus to today?

This spiritual science, Steiner believed, would also make those ancient world narratives readable in a new way and show that – although not on the descriptive level of the natural sciences – they express profound truths about the position of human beings in the world.

EK | But doesn't spiritual science remain very vulnerable if we consider that even a hundred years after Steiner it essentially relates to this one spiritual scientist? Is there anyone who can really claim supersensory insights? And some who do so come to quite divergent conclusions...

WM | Yes, that is a problem. I can only give my own personal view, as someone who can only compare a fraction of what Steiner puts before us with my own insights. In certain areas where I feel I can exercise reasonable judgement, I always find him, as I said at the beginning, magnificently enlightening. That's why I tend to "take" things from him that I certainly wouldn't have thought of myself.

This is, of course, a shaky basis on which to work. My approach to it is something like this: I try to keep Steiner's basic direction, his optics, as it were, in my mind, because it seems convincing to me in a way that makes the world accessible. But then I set out on my own to understand things, certainly inspired by his references, but free and autonomous nevertheless.

EK | Seen in this light, we would have to deal with Steiner's statements and "communications" in quite a distanced way. They play a central role in Waldorf education as well, after all.

WM | There's nothing wrong with that. If you read, for example, the transcript of his lectures on The Foundations of Human Experience  from 1919 – that is a treasure trove of suggestions and insights, and we would be foolish to ignore it. But the crucial thing remains how we ourselves penetrate and process these things. Something right, schematically adopted, becomes wrong. It is precisely for such paradoxes that anthroposophy sharpens the eye. It is a science of life and must itself be alive. And by the way, I am convinced that a freely and individually processed anthroposophy would also in general, "outwardly", be more capable of dialogue. Because people sense whether something is merely adopted or understood from the bottom up.

EK | The question is, however, whether people elsewhere are interested in anthroposophy at all. Right now, it tends to be attacked.

WM | The topic has many facets. A current one is certainly that during the coronavirus crisis there were not only good contributions from the anthroposophical scene, but also some that came across quite flippantly, without the careful judgement that must characterise anthroposophy from the ground up.

Another point is the constantly repeated accusations of racism against Steiner. I suppose we have to live with the fact that there are people who, with great zeal, fish out a few passages from his immense work that are problematic and who want to discredit everything with them. Here anthroposophy must also become more capable of defending itself, must be able to make visible that – despite individual statements that are open to attack – Steiner's approach contains, I would even say, the deepest form of human and emancipatory thinking.

But the real problem probably lies even deeper: that what anthroposophy is and means is really not easy to recognise. Steiner stated this directly in the last weeks of his life still: "In the spiritual life of the age, it is precisely the leading personalities who in the first instance do not know what it intends." From my point of view, we cannot respond to this bafflement – this may sound rude now – simply by pointing out that there are many good anthroposophical initiatives; others also do good. As difficult as it is, we must try to indicate where the newness of anthroposophy lies, its spiritual pivot, where the whole relationship to the world changes.

EK | Namely?

WM | This again leads to the point where it stands in radical contradiction to our age, which always dreams of technocratic, programmable, all-purpose solutions. Against this, it sets the view that everything decisive comes from the personal, the purely human, as it were. That sounds madly old-fashioned today. Indeed, many people will find it anathema because they think it makes everything arbitrary and subjective. Anthroposophy, however, says: the human being themselves, if they develop accordingly, is a source of objectivity. And they are not a cosmic aberration, but in them the essence of cosmic evolution can express itself, if they fully accept their task in the world. Sometimes I think that the basic impulse of anthroposophy could also be summed up in one word: taking responsibility. Spiritual, social, planetary.

Nevertheless, it will probably be a while still before the insanely old-fashioned turns out to be insanely modern.

EK | However, formulated like that, it sounds like an enormous distance from established science.

WM | Yes and no. That is precisely the difficult thing about anthroposophy: basically it sees itself as a bridge from our epoch to the next. This means that it must be well anchored on both banks – like Steiner himself, who closely followed the scientific developments of his time but nevertheless had his eye on quite different perspectives. Anthroposophy can only be capable of dialogue and will only be taken seriously if, in addition to the esoteric side, it also has a completely contemporary side; that is, if it can take on the forms of thought of our time and convincingly bring its points of view to bear.

The extent to which others then open up to it – that is not in our hands. Steiner's words probably apply here: when they experience certain questions, on a purely human level, with such a sense of urgency "as we feel hunger and thirst".

The questions were asked by Angelika Lonnemann

Wolfgang Müller, born in 1957, studied history and German in Heidelberg and Hamburg. Until 2020, he was a broadcast journalist specialising in contemporary history at Norddeutscher Rundfunk (NDR) in Hamburg. He now lives as a freelance author. His articles appear in anthroposophical journals, occasionally also in the newspapers Die Tageszeitung, Die Zeit and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. His book Zumutung Anthroposophie. Rudolf Steiners Bedeutung für die Gegenwart (The imposition of anthroposophy. Rudolf Steiner's significance for the present) has recently been published. An interview with him about this book at Rudolf Steiner House in Hamburg, can be found on the Internet at https://t1p.de/j6ld1

To contact Wolfgang Müller: erziehungskunst(at)waldorfschule.de 

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