The initiation of young people. A little known task in Rudolf Steiner’s art of education

By Valentin Wember, October 2020

The night from 10 to 11 January 1881 was a bitterly cold Vienna winter’s night. Rudolf Steiner remained up late, sat in his room, reflected on a number of philosophical questions and then turned back to a concern which had occupied him for the whole of his life: self-knowledge and self-experience. He had read the following in the philosopher Schelling: “In all of us there is a secret, wonderful ability to withdraw from the change of time into our innermost (...) self and there (...) look at the eternal in us.”

Photo: © Charlotte Fischer

Looking at the eternal in our own individuality:  during this night Rudolf Steiner succeeded in breaking through to this experience – a few weeks before his twentieth birthday. Two days later he wrote to a friend: “It was the night from 10 to 11 January that I did not sleep a wink. ... I believe ... that I have discovered this innermost ability [of which Schelling speaks; V.W.] very clearly within myself – I suspected it for a long time. ... What is a night without sleep against such a discovery!” (Letters, Vol. I).

Many years later Steiner described the way in which we can come to this experience.

“When a person thinks, then their consciousness is directed at the thoughts. They want to get an idea of something through the thoughts; they want to think properly in the ordinary sense. But we can also turn our attention to something else. We can cast our spiritual eye on the activity of thinking as such. We can, for example, make a thought the focus of our consciousness which does not relate to anything external, which is intended as a symbol for which we completely leave out of consideration that it represents something external. We can now linger in adhering to such a thought. We can completely immerse ourselves in only the inner activity of the soul while we remain like that. The important thing here is not to live in the thoughts but to experience the activity of thinking. In this way the soul can tear itself away from what it does when it normally thinks. It will find after some time, if it continues with such an inner exercise for sufficiently long, how it has entered into experiences which separate it from the thinking and mental images which are tied to the physical organs” (The Riddles of Philosophy).

The experience of the eternal self

Do the experiences and levels of self-knowledge and freedom set out above play a role in Steiner’s art of education? They do. Rudolf Steiner saw one of the most important goals of the first eight years of school in teenagers in due course, after passing through puberty, being able to come to an experience of their own eternal self. Only then would they also come to a true experience of freedom and not intoxicate themselves. Rudolf Steiner verbatim:

“For the most beautiful way to come close to the immortal human being is to experience for oneself after puberty how what has been decanted into the soul as images through imitation now emancipates itself in the soul and rises into the spirit and to feel how it makes the transition from temporal activity into eternal activity which then passes through birth and death” (Anthroposophical Education).

I know of no other modern system of education that sets itself the goal of guiding the young person towards the “immortal human being”. No other modern system of education for it may well be that in past cultures there occurred some kind of experience of eternity during the initiation rites of youth. The crucial question remains, however: how can that be possible? In what way can young people be guided after puberty “to the immortal human being” and, furthermore, in “the most beautiful way”?

Treasure chambers of the soul

Steiner made a discovery here which sounds mysterious: the soul obtaining freedom with puberty can find the eternal part of itself within itself if it learns to think what it previously just felt. But to that end it has to open its hidden treasure chambers within itself. What treasure chambers? First, all that was learnt unconsciously in early childhood through imitation; and second, what was absorbed from the time in school onwards by virtue of authority! And what then? It was Steiner’s observation that the young person after puberty wants to think for themselves but in order to do so – and this is the crucial point – must imperatively resort to the treasure chambers established within themselves.

If these treasure chambers are empty, the awakening thinking grasps at nothing. The tragic consequence: the young people can easily be cast adrift and – at the wrong time – imitatively join peer groups where they imitate “all kinds of monkey business” instead of understanding through the thinking what they previously acquired through learning fed by unconscious imitation and through love of their teacher. The path to the eternal in our own soul thus leads through a metamorphosis of the treasure chamber: from riches of the soul into the thinking, cognitive spirit.

This is a magnificent transformation: the images living in the substrates of the young person’s soul emancipate themselves from the soul entity and rise – in that they are understood with the thinking – into the spirit. And in this way the youthful soul can experience in wonder how the knowledge of childhood transitions from temporal (namely soul) activity into eternal activity. And in this transition the human being can experience themselves as being the same in nature as the spirit. They can experience in themselves their own spiritual and eternal part. The question is how?

Rudolf Steiner names three essential conditions:

1 As the first thing, a negative criterion: the intellect must under no circumstances be forced too early: “... that this intellectualistic thinking should on no account occur too early; greatest care should be taken in lessons and upbringing that this does not occur.” Of course the intellect of the children should be allowed to develop at primary school age but as far as possible only in the way that the body of the human being develops in the womb: by itself – and not be directly addressed and trained.

2 The second condition is a wealth of knowledge penetrated with feeling as deeply as possible. The feelings are the important thing, not the dry knowledge. Only then is the soul really involved. But it is the wealth of feelings in the soul which is the prerequisite for the initiation metamorphosis referred to above. Knowledge to which no feelings are attached is meaningless.

3 The thinking which transformed the knowledge penetrated with feeling into spirit must be as alive as at all possible.

In explanation of this crucial point, I want to refer to an experience of Goethe’s as set out by Rudolf Steiner, even if Goethe had the experience as an adult and not a young person.

Goethe and the grasp of the living spirit

In his first Weimar decade, Goethe intensively studied the plant world alongside his numerous ministerial duties and social obligations. He collected innumerable plants and his herbarium, which contained several thousand pressed plants is likely to have been one of the largest in the country. But for all his fascination with the diversity of the plants, he was driven above all by one question: what is the one principle that lives and works in all of them and makes them plants?

It was on his Italian journey that Goethe then succeeded in achieving his breakthrough. In his spirit he understood the principle of all plants. The curious thing was, that this principle stood before his soul with such vitality that he believed to have even seen it with his physical eyes.

An imagined cow is something quite different from a living, bulky black and white cow grazing in a luscious meadow before me. The archetypal plant stood before Goethe’s spirit as real and alive as a living cow. This spiritual (not sensory) perception of the archetypal plant was full of life. It was not an abstract image, it was not an abstract idea but a living being. And now we reach the crucial point: through the experience of the living and not the abstract idea, Goethe’s I itself was quickened to such an extent that it could grasp itself as a living being. The archetypal plant was living spirit.

Goethe’s spirit was able to experience itself in the face of the archetypal plant as a spirit made of the same spirit. An enormous experience because our normal experience of the I is pale and more or less abstract by comparison. It was not until it grasped the living spirit in nature that Goethe’s I was quickened to such an extent that it was able to grasp itself as living spirit. In Rudolf Steiner’s words:

“In the ‘archetypal plant’, Goethe had grasped an idea ‘with which an infinite number of plants can be invented’ which are ‘of necessity consistent, that is, which, even if they do not exist, could nevertheless exist and would not be picturesque or poetic shadows and semblances of some kind but possess inner truth and necessity.’

With this he is on the way to finding not just the perceivable, the conceived idea but also the living idea in the self-conscious I. The self-conscious I experiences a realm within itself which reveals itself as belonging both to itself and the external world because its structures testify to being reflections of the creative powers. Thereby the self-conscious I has found what allows it to appear as a real being. Goethe developed a mental image through which the self-conscious I can feel itself to be enlivened because it feels at one with the creative beings of nature. (...) He perceived in the self-conscious I the waft of the living idea” (from: Die Rätsel der Philosophie, GA 18, p. 170 f. English translation: The Riddles of Philosophy).

The feeling is what matters

We cannot currently expect to guide every pupil to their own experience of living (and not abstract) ideas. It is, in any case, not possible to do so in a specifically targeted way. We have to wait and see where this metamorphosis occurs in a person. The important thing is to communicate to the children the necessary prerequisites: living knowledge imbued with feeling. Enlivened feeling is the best basis for also grasping the living idea later on. The more alive and deeper the feeling, the more meaningfully and filled with life the ideas can be grasped through the wakened intellect after puberty. And the more alive the ideas are, the more the I is filled with life so that it can grasp itself as an eternal being. An I which is a shadow of itself cannot do that. It will always search for some kind of compensation to obtain a more intense feeling of itself. But when that happens we live in illusory worlds which sooner or later shatter on reality.

A concrete example: one of my pupils had, like many others, learnt an instrument at school and had progressed far with it so that he could immerse himself quite deeply in classical music. On numerous occasions he performed works of classical and modern music as well as playing in a large youth orchestra, travelling all over the world with it from Sydney to Cape Town. He knew and loved classical music. But he did not want to become a musician. He studied a technical subject and went on to become a manager in a large company.

We met again years after he left school and spoke about change processes in companies. I learned that in large companies 80 percent of all change processes which aim to achieve a significant cultural change basically fail. Only those processes succeed, he told me, in which the most important key players think from the heart and not only with their head. A process which does not arise from loving thinking is not creative. It is literally “half-hearted” and not “whole-hearted” and therefore doomed to fail. And then he said, and I quote: “The classical music of Beethoven or Brahms already contains this consciousness state of heart thinking. I understand that now. We must try to bring the quality of this music into our economic and technical thinking. That is where I found my task as a manager.”

What a magnificent metamorphosis: from an experience of music filled with feeling to its understanding: this music makes heart thinking audible to us. And this discovery enlivens the I to such an extent that it finds its destiny and mission. That might not yet be a vision of the immortal soul but it comes close.

About the author: Dr Valentin Wember was a Waldorf teacher for many years. Since 2012 he has worked as an organisational consultant in various schools. This text is an extract from his book, due to be published in November 2020: Erkenntniskräfe. Methoden der Pädagogik Rudolf Steiners. Vol. 4, Tübingen, Stratosverlag. www.stratosverlag.de

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