Comes of Age*

 the transcendentalist impulse, heretical 

Christianity and American Anthroposophy -

*this title follows the trail blazed by Owen Barfield's book of essays called: Romanticism Comes of Age, which sought to show how the romantics were a preview in time of the impulses connected to European Anthroposophy.  Here we do the same thing, only this time seeking to show the same essential connection between the transcendentalists and American Anthroposophy


Some readers of this will have no idea whatAnthroposophyis.  Rudolf Steiner, its scientific discoverer,  defined it as follows:Anthroposophy is a path of cognition from the spirit in man to the Spirit in the Universe.”  It will help to appreciate what I mean byscientific discoverer.

Anthroposophy is a name given by Steiner to a universal human capacity.  This potential is developed naturally in some cases, and only by hard work in others.  In some individuals there is a mixture of both.  Details can be found in my book American Anthroposophy.  This development involves the awakening of the will in human thinking (cognition), such that this will is able to bring about the metamorphosis of human thinking from its present state to the new (previously potential) state.

Thinking then becomes able, following this metamorphosis, to connect human consciousness to the Spirit, or Universal Consciousness (Emerson's Over-Soul).  Emerson developed this capacity more self -consciously (through hard work and instinct) and Thoreau was was able to do it more naturally (instinctively).  We know, for example, the degree to which Thoreau was able to be awake within the true thoughts of the natural world.

Emerson described this condition (from one point of view) in this way, in his essay Nature, written at age 33 in 1836: Nature is a thought incarnate and turns to thought once again as ice becomes water and then gas.  The World is mind precipitated, and the volatile essence is forever escaping into the state of free thought.  Rudolf Steiner, at age 25, 50 years later in 1886, wrote this in his book A Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World Conception: Thought is the last of a series of processes by which Nature is formed.

For our modern conscious, we might describe the situation this way:  The assumption of natural science is that thought is disconnected from the world (a kind of naive dualism).  Further, under the remnants of the once popular doctrine of logical positivism, such as analytic philosophy and various philosophies of language, thought itself (in consciousness) is believed to really only be available to be observed and analyzed when it enters language in sentences (this is justified by our naive experience of thinking in its discursive form, as if we were inwardly speaking to ourselves).  For both Emerson and Steiner, thought could be appreciated best right where it appeared before us in our own consciousness.  And someone like Thoreau, didn't so much think about this, but rather did it.  That is, he thought, and wrote down, or spoke, what he thought.

Steiner, in particular, described his book The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity as: some results of introspection following the methods of natural science.  One was to think about thinking - to cogitate about cogitation, using as much as possible the methods of natural science: objective observation and experimentation.  We are to seek an empirical knowledge of thought and thinking, as appears directly within our own consciousness.  Why?

Because in that most intimate sphere of our experience all the secrets of thought and the world as a co-joined unity (not a dualism, but a monism) can be perceived.

The 19th Century was the full flowering of natural science.  Parallel to that development, the Romantics and the Transcendentalists offered an alternative to the materialism (all is matter, there is no spirit) then coming to dominate the thinking of the educated Western world.  In America, the transcendentalists appeared at the beginning of the 19th Century most strongly in Concord, but by the end (the 1880's) the power of that impulse wained, and by 1890 the Concord School of Philosophy had closed.

Research by Steve Burman, presented recently at the Concord Convocation (directed by local Concordian Stuart Weeks), showed that even though the Concord School ended, it ended with the knowledge that something was about to be born in Central Europe out of German Idealism (Hegel, Schilling, Goethe etc.)  This assessment was correct, for simultaneously to this waining (for a time) of the Concord School in America, in Europe Rudolf Steiner (as a young man) was bringing in the culmination of the work of German Idealism and marrying it to the scientific impulse (to the practical  application of this work he later gave the name Anthroposophy).

In the early 20th Century the idea (but not its practical realization) of European Anthroposophy became known in America.  Unfortunately, this took the course of too much study of things Steiner wrote and said, and not enough practice of inward disciplines.  This confusion of practice and study is where the transcendentalist impulse becomes related to heretical Christianity.

Traditional Christianity has become dominated by systems of belief (rooted in an excess of biblical study), and few people actually bother to suffer the trials of practicing fully what is taught in the Gospels.  Heretical Christianity has always emphasized practice over dogma, which is why the Roman Church so often declared these folks heretics and tortured them and then killed them.

The Gospels themselves always hinted at the fundamental problem, by identifying two groups at the Birth: the shepherds and the kings.  The kings were related to the old pagan mysteries, which sacrificed their prior eminence (symbolized by the gifts of gold etc.), so that the Way of the Shepherds could begin to live into the world.  This new Way of Faith was rooted in the social form of Pastor and Flock.  The stream of kings' wisdom (the more ancient Way of Gnosis) did not leave completely, but remained active wherever some kind  of direct experience of the Divine Mystery was cultivated and taught. The kings taught that the individual human being did not need a pastor, and that all individuals were able themselves to be priests.

This stream of kings' wisdom, such as the Essenses, Gnostics, Manicheans, Pagans, Alchemists, Rosicrucians, some early natural philosophers, Christian Hermeticists, Anthroposophists etc., was more interested in the truth than in an official institutional point of view.   By the time transcendentalism appeared in Concord, for example, the power of traditional Christianity to severely punish heretical thinking had been lost, although the capacity of traditional Christian authorities to studiously ignore contrary ideas remained.

Such was the fate of European Anthroposophy as it slowly emerged in 20th Century Central Europe - the traditional Churches ignored it.    Most lovers of the work of the transcendentalists here in Concord look to the past - to Emerson, Thoreau, Fuller, and so forth, and not to the present, or the future.  Even the Concord Convocation didn't quite know what to do with itself, for like most of the Anthroposophical Movement worldwide, the Convocation was unable to maintain the scientific discipline which Steiner modeled and taught.

Enter American Anthroposophy, or Transcendentalism Comes of Age.  What does it mean: Comes of Age?

This could be answered in several different ways.  I write that last sentence (thought) so one doesn't assume that the next sentences are to tell the whole tale.

Here is one way we could look at this question: We all know that time is rushing by at an almost breakneck speed.  Change forces us toward ends we hardly seem ready to see, much less master.  Both Anthroposophy and Transcendentalism need to be American - that is practical and pragmatic.  We are far past a time when mere good thoughts and idealism are to be of much use.  Americans are doers of deeds.  We create and  invent and accomplish.

American Anthroposophy, if it actually is Transcendentalism Comes of Age, must be useful to our present social crisis.  What then is American* Anthroposophy as a practice, rather than a dogma or a doctrine?  What can one do with it

[Steiner recognized there would come to be an American Anthroposophy, see my book for details.]

Interesting enough, Steiner described  Americans as natural anthroposophists, and being English speakers, they were also instinctively in what he called the Consciousness Soul in their life of rights (their public life of law and politics).  This last means that we Americans, in spite of our human  flaws, are also at the leading edge of social transformation.  We insist, for example, that politics be moral.  We get confused (obviously) by what that means in practice, but we need our public life to be more than just a vanity of the power hungry - the sharks, wolves and pirates.  The Republic was founded on such a need and view, and if American Anthroposophy can't help with that, then sorry, but come back later when we have the time to bephilosophical” (in the sense of contemplating our collective navels).

If what was hinted at above about the difference between the naive dualism of natural science (thought  is disconnect from the world), and if Emerson and Steiner's appreciation of the fact that thought and world are a unity (a monism) were better known, we could then begin to see something practical.  The instinctive wisdom of think globally, act locally can become a science.

Our personal thoughts are not disconnected from life, but rather represent a perception of the living inside of existence.  In fact, we often are conflicted because so much of modern life suggests we can't personally know, but have to rely on experts and scientists.   Everywhere this is rebelled against, in small ways and large.  As the world continues its movement toward increasing social chaos (an intermediate stage of an ongoing metamorphosis toward a new civilization - that is, Western Civilization is in the process of dying into a new becoming), we are more and more being thrust on our own powers of observation, judgment and thought.

We live the immediacy of our biographies, not some guy in Washington, or some academic in an Ivory Tower.  We have to deal with the effects of each other's increasing stress driven craziness, and it will be our own thinking and judgment that pulls us through.  Emerson could not have put it more succinctly: In self trust all virtues are comprehended.

Yet, we are wise to be cautious.  We know we often make mistakes, and that frequently our thoughts turn out to not be true.  Science wants to tell us that we are just material brains, whose impulses were mapped out millions of years ago by a blind chance evolution.  That's a reasonable (but false) idea, with the existential problem coming when we face what to do when there is no food and water in our house, while our neighbor appears to have plenty.  Survivalist and militia groups are getting ready to treat this as if we still lived in caves.  What was once called Social Darwinism is not pretty in practice, and many of us expect more of ourselves.  The age of paternalism (dominion over)  is giving way to a rebirth of maternalism (communion with).   A dark future beckons - will it actually materialize?

As this time of less and less material wealth descends upon Americans (joining us to social conditions already common among the majority of the rest of the world), we will face difficult choices.  Is Emerson's seeming idealism of self trust and self reliance a fiction?

American Anthroposophy is about how to think.  Not what, but how.  It is practice not theory.  It is a science of thinking that gains for the individual all the confidence they need in their own capacity for sound judgment in a time of seeming social madness.  The lessons of Katrina are to be multiplied.  We can't expect the government to save us, but must learn to rely on ourselves and each other.  As a consequence this new how of thinking has both an individual and a community component (when necessary, such as when faced with a personal moral choice, we do it ourselves - we can also do also this new how of thinking together, through conversation, when it concerns shared needs and wants).

While many will want a kind of simple Mac-version of this new how of thinking (transcendentalism comes of age), its deeper reality is not to be gained like service in a fast food place.  All the same a brief sketch of this new thinking can be provided.

Properly called: Living Thinking (In The Acts of the Apostles this is called the experience of holy breath), this transcendental form of cognitive activity involves four stages of development.  These may be identified as thinking about, thinking with, thinking within and thinking as.  Each stage morphs out of the prior condition through an inwardly willed sacrifice (renunciation), coupled with an intention to love more and more selflessly the object of thinking.

To continue briefly: Ordinary consciousness is basically thinking about.  We generally think about other people, for example.  When we try to see the world from their point of view, we are moving from thinking about to thinking with.  This act, however, requires the conscious or instinctive renunciation of our natural inclination to re-actively like or dislike another person.  If we like them too much (an excess of sympathy), we will not see them truly (a kind of love that is blind).  If we dislike them too much (an excess of antipathy) we also will not see them truly - which lesson is described in the Gospels in the Sermon on the Mount as the problem of the mote and the beam.  To think truly with another, we have to renounce these reactive feelings, and consciously (willfully) make new (redeemed) mental pictures that seek to know them from their point of view - to think with them.

The transition from thinking with to thinking within is more difficult.  The mind must learn to empty itself entirely of its given thought content as regards the object of thinking.  In the Sermon on the Mount this is expressed in the Beatitude: blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.   To be poor in spirit means to not have a thought content to which we are attached.  We have surrendered our personal and individual point of view - renounced it.  When consciousness is empty of its old coagulated thought, the duality discussed above is overcome, and the first stages of a true new and living monism arises.  Mind is no longer separate from the inside of sense experience, but within the inside of sense experience.  Just as we have an inside of which we are deeply self aware, so does everyone else, including Nature.  Remember:Nature is a thought incarnate,...wrote Emerson.

After learning to letit think in me, which is the way Steiner puts it, or by learning tothink on our knees, which is the way the author of Meditations on the Tarot: a journey into Christian Hermeticism puts it - by stepping so strongly away from our own point of view, we are now on the threshold of learning to think as, not just within.  This final struggle involves renouncing the centrality of our own self.   We think fully of the other, as if the self didn't exist.

Now this process, of learning to think about, then with, then within and finally as, is circle and spiral-like in nature.  Ordinary consciousness does not disappear, but  the will in thinking is strengthened.  Moreover, something already possessed by ordinary consciousness becomes raised out of instinct and into full self-consciousness.

When, for example, a mother selflessly thinks for and about the needs of her children, she instinctively can intuit what she needs to do that is the good, or that moral action called for by the circumstances she faces.  When our consciousness is focused on other-need, to the exclusion of what is for our own benefit, we become knowing doers (Steiner's phrasing).  We find, by this selflessness, those thoughts which the situation calls forth.  We know the inside of the circumstances of our lives.

Natural science, for example, stops at thinking about Nature.  The scientist keeps his own consciousness and nature apart (having assumed already a disconnect).  He doesn't even conceive that Nature could have consciousness.  Not looking for it, he cannot find it.  Were he decide to look for it, the door to the inside of Nature is through his own inside.  We don't approach any kind of real intimate relationship with another human being by focusing solely on their surfaces - what we see through our senses.  To know them, we have to learn of their inside, which we call: getting to know each other.  The same process is required with regard to Nature.

We know today the moral emptiness of thinking of another human being as a thing - as an object without an inwardness or its own meaning.  We have mostly overcome making slaves of other human beings.  We have not yet overcome making a slave of Nature.  We are working Nature to death, and because we are interdependent with Nature, we are in effect murdering ourselves and our posterity.  As Einstein pointed out: "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.

This then is Living Thinking (holy breath), which is precisely what is needed to deal with the crises of our time.  We have to learn to not just think about the elements of existence  (the living people, the living social processes), but with, within and as these elements.  Existence has an inside, just as does each human being we meet.  That inside can be known.

With the above thoughts we can now appreciate more deeply something hidden in the instinctive wisdom: think globally, act locally.  To think globally means not just to think and try to understand the whole world, but to think holistically - to grasp with thinking the whole situation, including its inside.  To think globally means to go beyond the stark tendency of natural science to concentrate solely on analysis, but instead to consciously practice synthesis.

In fact, science doesn't know at all what to do with the social crisis of the world, for it has never asked the relevant questions.  Religions doesn't do all that well in this realm either, tending to believe they have a monopoly on spiritual truths (although their tradition of social good works and service accomplishes much) .  Government, as Katrina taught us, is also mostly useless.  We are on our own.  What will we choose to do?

In point of fact, the movement from a dead and dying paternalism (dominion over) toward a new and living social maternalism (communion with) includes a movement away from I toward Thou.  What I can or cannot do alone is far outweighed by what we can do together.

Thinking, which frequently has to be individual (in order to be truly moral), when it is applied to the needs of several has to acquire another quality.  We have to think-together, to take council together.  I-thinking acquires morality through selflessness, but at the same time we-thinking requires not just selflessness, but a capacity to weave the thoughts of many into a whole.  In our we-thinking conversations we have to unite the separate thoughts into a unity.  An individual trying to dominate the conversation does not serve the whole, but only himself as an isolate.  He raises his thought above the potential of the unity of all present thoughts.

We know too that this isn't easy.  There are whole disciplines connected to how to achieve what some call consensus.  First Nations communities would often discuss for days at a time serious issues which were to affect the whole.  No individual was expected to sacrifice their individual judgment and freedom to the whole - everyone was still free to go their own way.  But whatever community there was, that had to find some level of shared agreement through social processes of communion with.

A lot of common-place sayings are relevant here.  The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, for example.  Many hands make light work is another.  The 12 Steps of AA are fully rooted in community practices.  So is the social process called: non-violent communication.  Everywhere we look at the social commons (the social below, which is more and more separate from the influence of the dying hierarchical organizations), group social processes are coming to the fore precisely because they are more effective.  They work!

The core of this working is conversation.  True conversation at this level is a skill, perhaps even an art (some call it the Royal Art).  This was the heart of the transcendentalist impulse - the circle of friends.  Community (shared) problems need to be solved by that particular community itself, through the conversation of social equals.  What is being suggested here is that in this practice of the Royal Art of Conversation, we together find the true inside (thoughts) of the social immediacy we share.  Not only its truth, but a kind of truth which is co-creative.  We (together) participate in this socially creative art, by the which the many crises of the coming times are solved in ways never before thinkable, because we didn't yet need to think them.  Another common place saying comes to mind: necessity is the mother of invention.

This then is Transcendentalism Comes of Age: Finding the needed true thoughts through those conversations as are made necessary by our shared trials of life, in each circle of friends of which we are a member.