Work On What Has Been Spoiled
Work on what has been spoiled
"There slumber in every human being faculties by means of which he can
acquire for himself a knowledge of higher worlds." Thus wrote Rudolf Steiner,
the founder of Anthroposophy. In The Philosophy of Freedom he demonstrated
that thinking was the power that allowed modern human beings direct access
to the spiritual worlds, an access that had once been the privilege of
only a handful of mystics. No longer was it necessary for average human
beings to depend on scripture and other forms of religious authority, for
they could discover spiritual truth directly through strengthened thinking.
This direct knowledge, he argued, was the only foundation for true moral
freedom. He went on to develop and teach practical methods by which it
could be achieved.
Has supreme success.
--the I Ching
The Chinese character Ku represents a bowl in
whose contents worms are breeding. This means decay. It has come about
because the gentle indifference of the lower trigram has come together
with the rigid inertia of the upper, and the result is stagnation. . .
. What has been spoiled through man's fault can be made good again through
man's work. It is not immutable fate that has caused the state of corruption,
but rather the abuse of human freedom. Work toward improving conditions
promises well, because it accords with the possibilities of the time.
A century later, the Society he founded seems dedicated mainly to preserving
and disseminating his nearly 60,000 transcribed lectures. The result of
his own spiritual research, these lectures cover everything from gnomes
to seraphim, from the history of Atlantis to recipes for compost. "Steiner
says" is the constant refrain of anthroposophists, who seem to prefer citations
from these lectures to direct knowledge of anything. While Steiner's initiatives
in education, biodynamic agriculture, homeopathic medicine and care of
the mentally retarded have been lovingly preserved, anthroposophy has,
since his death, produced little in the way of social innovation. Anthroposophists,
when they can be understood at all, express superstitions and prejudices
that would embarrass a redneck. Fearing injury by everything from rock
music to microchips to Jesuits, they have become a society of esoteric
hypochondriacs, in neo-Amish withdrawal from modern political and economic
How is it that a movement dedicated to strengthened thinking produces
so many goofy and morally useless ideas? How did the author of The Philosophy
of Freedom become this ghost to whom his readers so idolatrously surrender
their independence of judgement? That sound and stirring concepts give
rise to corrupt and neurotic human organizations is pretty much a summary
of the history of all spiritual movements. The specifics of how this came
about in the Anthroposophical Society, and what might be done now to correct
it, is the subject I wish to explore in this article.
The can of worms with which I start is the "Dornach Scandal" of 1915.
The protagonists are all long since dead and the episode itself of no great
historical importance. But its thorough documentation in Community Life,
Inner Development, Sexuality and the Spiritual Teacher provides us
with a vivid snapshot of interpersonal dynamics in the Society as they
existed early in its founding. Analysis of these dynamics can show us how
the best laid plans of philosophers and angels go awry in everyday human
The Episode in Brief
Dornach, Switzerland became a center of anthroposophical activity in
1913, when construction began on the building that was to be its headquarters.
The Anthroposophical Society as such had just been founded, though many
of its members had connections of longer standing to Rudolf Steiner through
the Theosophical Society, from which he had recently been expelled. The
outbreak of World War I placed the international community that had assembled
in Dornach under some stress, exacerbated by hostility to it on the part
of local residents.
In December of 1914, Steiner had married his longtime colleague, Marie
von Sivers. This provoked an intense emotional outpouring on the part of
another longtime community member, Alice Sprengel, who expressed her disappointment
in two private letters to Dr. Steiner. He seems to have viewed her as one
of the many female students whose crushes on him were an embarrassment
and possible source of scandal, and went so far as to state that the avoidance
of such scandals was his main reason for marrying Marie. Though Alice's
elliptical manner of expression leaves the exact nature of her disappointment
somewhat unclear, it seems to have been based on expectations far more
complicated than becoming Steiner's wife or girlfriend. She believed that
the real or imagined rupture between them would have serious occult consequences
for the Society as whole. The grandiosity of such an assertion combined
with the febrile emotionalism of her personality led many of her contemporaries
to dismiss her as crazy-an assumption that has continued to go unchallenged
She found a defender, though, in the person of Heinrich Goesch who,
prior to this incident, had been recommended to Steiner as a gifted scholar
and mystic. Goesch not only found something to admire in Alice, but saw
her as a victim of an overall pattern of behavior in Steiner that he considered
harmful to the Society as a whole. While avowing the deepest respect for
him as a teacher, he felt there was much room for improvement in Steiner
as leader. He took this matter up in a private letter to Steiner,
co-signed by Mrs. Goesch. Steiner's outraged public reaction to this letter
led to the eventual expulsion from the Society of both of the Goesch's
and Alice Sprengel.
Though Goesch became an outspoken opponent of anthroposophy after his
expulsion, the dissent expressed in his letter is that of a loyal insider
who shares Steiner's values. There is no evidence that, at the time of
the crisis, he or Sprengel undertook or even contemplated any public challenge
to the Society or to Steiner's leadership position within it, though it
appears that they were creating a lot of informal agitation. Until Steiner
reacted publicly, the "crisis" amounted to no more than three private letters
and some background griping. The vehemence of his reaction may have been
inspired by the historical context-fear that a Society surrounded by external
opposition could not afford internal unrest, plus a certain rawness left
over from his recent conflicts with the Theosophical Society.
Like so many of Steiner's utterances, his comments on the affair and
related issues have outlived their historical context and been raised to
the level of eternal verities. In his dispute with Goesch and Sprengel
he had not only the last word, but another word after that, and another
and another, until their own words have been all but buried under the sheer
mass of his sarcastic distortions. But Goesch had an eternal verity or
two of his own to contribute. His thoughtful analysis of the power dynamics
in spiritual communities anticipates many of the insights of contemporary
organizational psychology. And both he and Sprengel hint at esoteric developments
that were yet to unfold, developments extremely relevant to the present
moment. In order that these two faint, prophetic voices may be heard, it
will be necessary first to rescue them from a history written by the victor.
What follows is less an attack on Steiner than a strenuous defense of the
The Goesch Letter
The thesis of Goesch's letter was that Steiner's actions on an interpersonal
level were undermining the benefit of his teachings and the quality of
community life. He believed that to maintain and strengthen the individual
"I" of the student was the single most important task of a modern, esoteric
teacher and that quality of relationship between teacher and student has
more impact on this development than the imparting of formal teachings.
Goesch believed that the "I" of students was being weakened through a largely
unconscious perpetuation of feelings of dependence and inferiority in relation
to Steiner. He urged Steiner to become more aware of and responsible for
his own impact. The specific concerns outlined in his letter are as follows:
He states that Steiner breaks his promises. No specific examples
are offered, though on August 21, Steiner himself twice demonstrates that
there is substance to the complaint. (More on that presently.) Goesch's
expressed concern seems to have less to do with the broken promises themselves
than with what he sees as the harmful way in which members of the AS are
rationalizing their disappointment.
Some assume there must be an occult explanation, that the disappointment
is actually a spiritual teaching.
Some refrain from forming any judgement on the matter, believing that
the teacher should not be held accountable in an ordinary human way.
Some repress all awareness of the disappointment, forget it ever happened.
He believes Steiner is not open to hearing criticism of those
he has placed in positions of responsibility, that honest dissent and questioning
are discouraged. Goesch sees this as an indication that the Society is
becoming a "false hierarchy."
He accuses Steiner of contradicting his own ideals about the
role of the modern teacher by exercising "occult" influence over his students-i.e.
influence not addressed to their conscious "I".
Overall, the tone is firm, bordering on harsh in certain passages, but
respectful. He credits Steiner with instilling in him the very ideals that
are motivating his action. Goesch states repeatedly that he attributes
no evil intent to Steiner, only wishes that he would consider the effect
his actions. Not until the second to last paragraph does he make direct
mention of Alice Sprengel. Then, rather unfortunately, he attributes the
entire letter to her influence. One wonders whether Steiner might have
been able to consider the letter less defensively had Sprengel not been
invoked, for the issues raised existed independently of that particular
episode, and were intelligently delineated.
The principal weakness of Goesch's letter was its lack of specific factual
examples to support the charges of broken promises and occult influence.
Ironically, the best factual evidence was provided by Steiner himself in
his actions of August 21, 1915. He had received the letter-addressed to
him privately--that morning and, in the evening, read it in its entirety
to members of the Society who had assembled in the expectation of hearing
In commenting on the letter, Steiner pounces immediately it's weakest
passage. Goesch in accusing him of exercising subconscious influence, had
"The kind of interpersonal attitude you create
not only contradicts your teachings; your behavior also contradicts what
you yourself demand of spiritual teachers in the modern age. Such teachers
should appeal only to people's consciousness. Their self-chosen obligation
toward their students is never to exercise any magical influence on the
students' subconscious that the latter have not consented to or cannot
control. For you, every handshake, every friendly conversation becomes
a means of cultivating these false relationships. The bliss that fills
the members after meeting with you is not the bliss of the communion of
saints, but a merely Luciferic-Ahrimanic one . . . You even try to use
these handshakes and friendly conversations to pull members back into the
fold against their will once they have recognized the falsity of the relationships
you try to create."
This passage is unfortunate in attributing harmful intent to Steiner, something
Goesch had been at pains not to do throughout most of the letter. It also
sets up a ferociously witty comeback from Steiner. He explains the perfectly
normal circumstances in which he had been moved to shake the hand of Goesch's
wife and confesses waggishly, "I intervened in the inner being of Mrs.
Goesch by shaking her hand and asking her how the child was doing." He
goes on to describe his last casual encounter with Goesch himself. "At
that point, I also made the mistake of extending my hand to Mr. Goesch.
These are the two instances in which I intervened in someone else's being
by means of black magic."
Good one. When you've finished chuckling, please take a second look
at what makes Steiner's comeback so funny. It's an abrupt change of level.
Goesch is speaking esoterically, and Steiner responds at the level of plain
common sense. Anyone can become a comedian at the expense of an occultist,
and nobody's utterances make better straight lines than Steiner's own.
In the ensuing month, however, it will be Steiner who delivers most of
the punch lines. He was witty throughout, and always by employing the same
basic strategy, the abrupt drop of level. His lectures during this period
make a sadistic good read. His send-ups of the convoluted esoteric explanations
members offer for their ordinary human behavior are hilarious. But since
Steiner, in other contexts, attributed many of his own actions to esoteric
motives, the subtext reads: "I am entitled to believe myself to be motivated
by the spiritual and you are not."
On August 21, Steiner refuses to address the issue of broken promises,
but he inadvertently demonstrates the behavior Goesch is talking about
twice that very evening.
The title that Steiner continually mocks Alice Sprengel for
applying to herself--Keeper of the Seal--was bestowed on her by Steiner
himself some months previously, when he invested a number of members with
various offices. He acknowledges this during his talk and then states that
she and others should have known he'd changed his mind, since he had made
no further public reference to the appointments. He shrugs off the episode
with, "It was simply an experiment."
The first of these lapses apparently had a most unsettling effect on Sprengel,
who had taken her title very much to heart. That Steiner bestows titles
and later takes them away without notice suggests not only that he breaks
promises, but that his style of leadership is arbitrary and confusing.
It is the broken word in the second example, though-perhaps seemingly trivial-that
lends credibility to Goesch's other unsupported charge: that Steiner is
exercising occult influence.
He states: "I will take no part in discussing either this letter or
anything that will need to be done as a result of it." From there he goes
on to discuss the letter and what should be done about it for another six
printed pages. At the end of his talk, he assures the audience, "Our program
tomorrow will continue as planned." But it doesn't. He preempts a second
scheduled lecture for further discussion of the Goesch/Sprengel affair.
His lectures over the next month contain constant references to it.
"Occult" means hidden, and Goesch seems to have meant no more by it
than "hidden," but the spooky aura around the word makes its choice unfortunate.
What Goesch meant by "occult influence" was that which affected members
unconsciously as opposed to that addressed to their conscious reasoning.
Had they been speaking in a psychological rather than a spiritual context,
he might have said "manipulative," for that is the whole thrust of his
argument. And manipulative Steiner definitely was that night. Let's look
at another series of statements.
Steiner mentions that the Society is coming under attacks from
outside it, many of these attacks directed at him personally. "This should
lead our active members to take up the obligation to defend our cause,
if they take the idea of our Society as seriously as they should."
There can be little doubt what Steiner wanted and expected the Society
to do. Influence addressed to conscious reason would have stated his wish
to expel the offending parties and put the matter to a vote. Instead he
first blurred the distinction between loyal dissenters and external attackers,
then implied that expulsion should be the wish--the personal initiative
no less--of anyone loyal to the Society, and ended with a thinly veiled
threat of abandonment. While an informal decision to expel the three was
made during the following week, implementation was postponed for another
fortnight. During that time Steiner referred to the matter over and over
again in his lectures, always disavowing any wish to expel the two while
making it clear that he found their presence untenable. He was present
at the meeting at which the formal decision was made, yet the document
of expulsion explicitly denied his involvement. For the best part of a
month, he was taking regular dips in Pilate's hand basin.
Next he says, "If what I want to do is to be accomplished on behalf
of the Society, then please allow me the time to do it. The Society is
wrongly conceived of if people are always turning to one individual; it
must include taking personal initiative in what needs to be done on behalf
of the Society."
Directly followed by: "For this reason my friends, today's incident
must be seen as an important and even crucial one. . . I will wait patiently
to see what you, as members of the Society, will do about it. Meanwhile
I will continue to fulfill my obligations; the program will continue tomorrow
as planned. But it goes without saying that how everything goes on after
that will depend on the position the Society takes on what it has heard
After concluding his talk he remained in the room as members discussed
the matter. Apparently he didn't like the way the discussion was going,
for he departed in indignation, saying, "I cannot have anything more to
do with a society like this!"
The most resounding confirmation of Goesch's argument came on August
22. Distressed by Steiner's angry departure, the majority of those present
composed a letter of apology, signed by over 300 members. Until then, Steiner
might have honestly believed that the unhealthy dependence of his students
was a figment of Goesch's imagination, for he seems to have been truly
innocent of any intention to render them dependent. But the groveling
tone of that group letter is the smoking gun. It began:
"As members of the Anthroposophical Society, we wish to express
our righteous indignation and our feeling of shame that someone of mendacious
and immoral outlook, as evident in Mr. Heinrich Goesch's letter, has dared
to address you in a fashion dictated by the most despicable delusions of
Compare that with this observation, made by Goesch in his letter:
"There have already been instances of highly respected members
substituting a reliance on your word for reliance on the truth. They cut
off any criticism of any part of your work, objecting that your critics
would be placing themselves above you. They feel that putting oneself above
you is such an act of wanton temerity as to be out of the question, and
that with their objection the issue is resolved once and for all."
The group letter goes on to say:
"We must painfully reproach ourselves for not having understood
how to prevent what has happened and for having proved unable thus far
to create a circle of people in which the thoughts and feelings expressed
in this letter could not have arisen."
Thus demonstrating Goesch's contention that the Society stifled criticism
and dissent. In short, he was right on all counts.
So, what did Steiner do when presented with the smoking gun? He referred
to it, in his address to the members the following evening as "a very gracious
letter." Then he went on to say:
"I believe I will not be committing an indiscretion in telling
you about a letter that Mr. Bauer showed me just fifteen minutes ago, a
letter written by a Society member who is a physician. The writer is quite
rightly of the opinion, as I myself was yesterday, not only after but during
the reading of Mr. Goesch's letter, that we are not dealing with anything
logical but with something that has to be considered from the point of
view of pathology. . . . . Are we to tolerate psychopaths who are destroying
our spiritual-scientific activity? Yes, to the extent that we can have
compassion for them. However, if we tolerate them without fully taking
their pathological nature into account, we allow them to constantly endanger
everything that is most precious and most important to us."
Was Goesch Crazy?
It was known that Goesch had been an early student of Freudian psychoanalysis.
In cooperation with his friend, Otto Gross, an early pupil of Freud's and
lecturer in psychopathology at the University of Graz, he had undertaken
self-analysis. Goesch makes no reference to Freudian concepts in his letter
to Steiner, nor would anything in the text suggest that psychoanalysis
was even a casual influence on Goesch's thinking about the situation at
hand. Nevertheless, Steiner was moved to go on the offensive against Freudianism
in a series of three lectures delivered September 12-14. In these lectures,
he makes the following points:
Psychoanalysis is a "smutty theory" because it attributes non-sexual
behavior to subconscious sexual motives.
One would have to be listening to these lectures in a hypnogogic state
not to be struck by their blatant internal contradictions. Steiner smears
psychoanalysis in order to smear Goesch by association, then turns around
and uses psychoanalytic concepts to discredit not only Goesch but Emanuel
Swedenbourg. While there is no record of anyone disputing Steiner's remarkable
assertions in these lectures, evidently they failed to convince every member
of the Society that Mr. Goesch was mentally ill. So one Dr. Amann contributed
his professional opinion, arguing that coherent thought was not the demonstration
of mental health us lay folks naively assume it to be but, in fact, a symptom
of pathology. Please take a closer look at these statements of Dr. Amann's:
Goesch's action was motivated by repressed sexual desire for Alice Sprengel.
Emanuel Swedenbourg couldn't understand what the Mars beings were saying
because, having lived a very "pure" life, he was carrying repressed sexual
impulses into the spiritual worlds.
The traditional way of preventing the carrying of repressed sexual impulses
into the spiritual worlds is to exclude women from esoteric communities
so that men can live a pure life.
"We are dealing with a melancholy frame of mind and a clouded
Overlook for a moment the peculiarity of the notion that the urge to be
productive is a sign of mental illness and consider: Which of our cast
of characters do these statements best describe? That is not the cheap
shot it might seem. I will go on to argue that what Steiner was really
attempting to expel was the shadow side of his own personality.
"Their illness lies in the fact that they become obsessed and hypnotized
with their own fixed trains of thought and are not susceptible to any
criticism from outside."
"These people suffer in secret under the thoughts that plague them until
they have carried them to term and can present them to the public. The
urge to be visibly productive and important is constantly present in
Was Alice Crazy?
If Goesch's sanity was at least a matter for debate, that Alice Sprengel
was nuts seems to have been widely, if not universally, assumed. But was
Of open-mindedness, Steiner wrote: "It is absolutely correct that if
anyone were to come to the esoteric pupil and say, `Since last night the
steeple of such and such a church has been tilted right over,' the esotericist
should leave a loophole open for the contingency of his becoming convinced
that his previous knowledge of natural law could somehow be augmented by
such an apparently unprecedented fact. In this spirit, let's leave a loophole
open for the contingency that Alice Sprengel was sane.
The exact reason for Alice's distress over Steiner's marriage to Marie
von Sivers is difficult to determine from the scanty documentation available--
her two brief letters to Steiner, a fragment of a letter to Marie, and
Steiner's references to her in his talks. He implies that her disappointment
is of a sexual nature, but nothing in what she writes to him supports this.
Her letter of December 25, 1914 begins, "`Seven years now have passed,'
Dr. Steiner, since you appeared to my inner vision and said to me, `I am
the one for whom the powers of destiny intended you.'" She goes on to recount
how she had been thrown into confusion by this vision and struggled inwardly
against whatever it was that she thought destiny intended. The phrase "Seven
years now have passed' is a quotation from Steiner's mystery drama, The
Guardian of the Threshold, in which she had played the role of Theodora
in 1907-i.e. literally seven years previously. Alice is not the only anthroposophist
to believe that Steiner was sending coded messages about his own and other
people's destinies through the mystery dramas. Given that context, her
reading a personal message into the lines he had written and chosen her
to speak on stage is not as bizarre as it might otherwise seem.
Her outward relationship to him seems to have been characterized by
shyness and deference. Her two letters to him make reference to thoughts
and feelings that she had not been able to bring herself to speak aloud.
Note that she addresses him by surname, indicating that she is not under
the delusion that they are intimate in the real world. Yet she seems to
believe that a spiritual intimacy exists between them, that he reads her
thoughts and speaks to her "inner vision." There is a frightened, wounded
quality about her letters. She speaks of social isolation, intense distrust
of other people who, for reasons she cannot understand, abuse her trust
and disappoint her. She speaks also of a harsh inner voice that berates
her. It was said of her that she had "undergone unusual suffering in her
childhood". That this alludes to early sexual abuse is plausible given
the secretive, shame-filled, and somewhat dissociated personality her letters
express. She writes: "And when my soul wanted to unfold under that radiant
gaze of yours in which I could read that you knew what had happened to
me, something looked at me out of your eyes, crying `This is a temptation.'"
It is Alice's soul that wants to unfold under what she imagines
to be an all-wise, all-compassionate gaze. Far from being sexually motivated
in any physical sense, it would seem Alice feels she's found in Steiner
a father who is safe because physically distant. Seven years without sexual
contact haven't troubled her in the least. What throws her, perhaps, about
Steiner's marriage is that it suddenly makes his sexuality real to her,
while at the same time causing her to doubt the spiritual intimacy she
had imagined between them. This is all speculation, of course. Her wounded
psyche already having been subject to the coarsest public insinuations,
I feel I should intrude no further there. I mean only to demonstrate that
there is no ground for supposing that she was throwing herself at Steiner
sexually, and considerable evidence to the contrary.
Alice was not unusual in reading unintended meaning into her casual
contacts with Rudolf Steiner, as he himself admits:
"It has happened more than once that people showed up at a
lecture cycle somewhere or other, saying that it was Dr. Steiner's expressed
wish that they attend. That has happened many times. If you look into it
a bit, you will find that the people in question had told me of their plans
to attend the series and, since I am always heartily pleased to meet members
again in different places, I had told them I was very glad. In many cases,
however, what I said was so changed in the minds of the people in question
that by the next day they were saying that it was my particular wish that
they attend this course. This is another instance of these strange misconceptions."
This is the phenomenon to which Goesch was trying to draw Steiner's attention
with that "occult handshake" business. Once again, it is unfortunate that
his tone, in that part of the letter, was overly strident and blaming,
for obviously Steiner isn't intending to have this impact and is quite
perplexed by it. In the particular moment when students endow his ordinary
actions with excess significance, the teacher is helpless to stop them.
Yet, as may already be becoming evident, Steiner was not averse to his
exalted position in a general way. During the same talk, he implicitly
asserts it. He lets stand the charge made in the group letter that Goesch,
in daring to criticize him, was getting too big for his breeches. And he
goes on to level the same charge against Alice. He alludes to a conversation
in which she implied that she already felt herself to be in possession
of spiritual knowledge and was joining the Society because she felt she
had a mission in it. She believed, in fact, that she had something to teach
him. This he labels as "vanity."
For a person to believe, as Steiner did of himself, that they are present
in a situation because of what they have to give to it rather than what
they need to receive from it can be called either "vain" or "responsible"
depending on whether one agrees that they do, indeed, have something to
give. Steiner, in maintaining that he is responsible while Sprengel and
Goesch are merely vain, is placing himself above them, asserting that he
is of greater value. Having done so in the expectation that all present
will agree, it is somewhat disingenous to be surprised when people fawn
over one's most casual gestures and utterances.
In attempting to discredit her, Steiner makes much of Alice's alleged
belief that she was an incarnation of the Madonna/Persephone. Since this
comes to us secondhand, the exact nature of her belief is unclear. Had
she been working in a Jungian context, she would likely have said something
along the lines of "I am integrating the Madonna/Persephone archetype into
my personality." Anthroposophists, however, believe that archetypes and
mythical figures are actual spiritual beings who can be encountered as
such. It then remains to discover the exact nature of one's relationship
to such a being. On a spiritual level, one can "see" it (imagination),
"hear" it (inspiration), or receive impulses directly into one's will from
it (intuition). Since anthroposophists also believe that such beings sometimes
incarnate into living humans, one might conceivably also be the
being. If, as alleged, Alice believed that she was an incarnation of the
Madonna, one can say that she was mistaken but, within the context
she and Steiner shared, she can't be said to be crazy.
To understand exactly who it is that Alice thought she was requires
a brief digression into Sophiology. The spiritual being of Sophia is pictured
symbolically as a circle encompassing the triangle which represents the
Holy Trinity, and figuratively as a woman clothed with the sun and standing
on the moon, her head encircled by twelve stars. This spiritual being is
believed to have incarnated into Mary, the mother of Jesus, at the Whitsun
event. In addition to this celestial imagining of Sophia, there an "underground
Sophia" expressed in pre-Christian times in the Eleusinian Mysteries-mysteries
of descent associated with the figures of Demeter and Persephone.
That Sophia has been largely forgotten is blamed on a deed of Lucifer,
the light-bearer, who stole her power to work directly on earth, appropriating
her light to himself. This victimized Sophia is the Mater Dolorosa, the
wan and suffering Madonna depicted in Russian icons. Rescuing Sophia so
that she can again reveal herself to human beings is a task of her champion,
the knightly archangel Michael. Steiner saw anthroposophy as the School
of Michael on earth, the setting in which Sophia would finally begin to
manifest through human thinking.
Though neither of them refers to it in their letters, it is conceivable
that Goesch and Sprengel were influenced by their imagining of the Sophia/Michael
relationship. Prior to being labeled a psychopath, Goesch was considered
by some to be a genius. He had earned both a PhD and an LLD by the age
of twenty, and was said to possess unusual mystical gifts and an extraordinary
quickness to grasp esoteric teachings. It seems curious at first that this
brilliant man would attribute his incisive and articulate letter to the
influence of Alice--a woman who gets so lost in emotion between subject
and predicate that she can scarcely write an intelligible sentence. As
the action of chivalrous Michaelic intelligence raised in defense of mute
Sophianic wisdom, it makes some sense.
Steiner speaks caustically about people who rest on the laurels of their
imagined former incarnations, doing nothing in this lifetime. He sensibly
recommends that people test their incarnational hypothesis by seeing "if
you can actually do what you would be able to do" if you were the incarnation
of this great person. The only trouble with this advice as applied to Alice's
hypothesis is that the being with whom she identified doesn't do
anything. Alice's inarticulate suffering and paralysis of will would tend
to support identification with Persephone in the underworld, the
Mater Dolorosa, the Sophia at the bottom.
In any event, Steiner apparently never refuted her supposition when
they spoke of it in private. He says, "I have made a habit of speaking
much less affirmatively or negatively than most people probably would.
I have always tried to say only what would enable the person in question
to come to independent conclusions on the matter, without acting on my
authority." Here he shows responsible awareness of the power others tended
to give him and his potentially negative impact on their freedom. It must
be noted, however, that nowhere in his extended discussion of this matter
does he challenge the notion that he actually knows who his students
were and were not in their previous incarnations. Clearly he is purporting
to know, and it is therefore not unreasonable for Alice to suppose that
his reason for not challenging her belief is that he knows it to be true.
Note also that tactful respect for freedom does not prevent him from ridiculing
Alice in public for a belief that he had, as far as we know, never disputed
in his private consultations with her.
Another Mystery Drama
Alice Sprengel's two letters to Steiner express anguish and much confusion.
It takes no extraordinary degree of interpersonal sensitivity to see in
them a cry for help. What the "teacher and guide" addressed in these letters
goes on to do is to subject their writer to the most excruciating public
exposure and humiliation in lecture after lecture. That Alice herself may
have been confiding in some members privately does not excuse the spectacle
of this sarcastic denunciation from the podium by the man she had trusted
as teacher and spiritual advisor.
What on earth was Steiner thinking? More to the point, what was he not
thinking? What was he unable to think?
Please consider without prejudice the following pairs of statements:
"The effect of this is something that you ought to have at
least some awareness of. It gives rise to the most terrible backlashes
on the part of the spiritual world."
"I sense that, on an occult level, this is a terrible state of affairs."
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"The people who stand behind me would all fit under this cherry tree."
"I do not know why my surroundings have always been tempted to participate
wrongfully in my inner life. Only here and only very recently have I been
able to ward this off, but it has forced me into complete isolation."
"Rudolf Steiner was in the deepest sense the closest colleague
of Christian Rosenkreutz. And the imagination, which Rudolf Steiner gave
to Ita Wegman shortly after the Christmas Conference in response to her
question about his relationship to Christian Rosenkreutz, of an altar in
the spiritual world beside which there stands, on the one side, Christian
Rosenkreutz in a blue stole and, on the other, Rudolf Steiner in a red
stole, testifies to this."
The first statement in each pair is attributable to Rudolf Steiner, the
second to Alice Sprengel. In the first set, both Steiner and Sprengel warn
of occult consequences because a human situation is not going as they would
like it to. In the second set, both express a sense of social isolation
bordering on the paranoid. In the third set, grandiose claims are made
about their relationship to Christian Rosenkreutz. It may be significant
that the quotations from Steiner all come from the last year or so of his
life, when he was suffering from illness, exhaustion and depression. When
under great stress, Steiner manifested many of the characteristics for
which he berates Alice. Perhaps he was barking at his own shadow.
" . . . the Keeper of the Seal of the Society for Theosophical Art and
Style, who is under the protection of Christian Rosenkreutz . . . "
The shadow is a Jungian concept, for which the simplest definition is:
everything that the self wishes not to be. The characteristics Steiner
attributes to Alice in his various public remarks--vanity, grandiosity,
illogic, melancholy, over-solidified imagination and sexual repression-are
a description of what Steiner wanted very much not to be.
The ferocity with which he abuses her suggests a sadomasochistic dimension
to their relationship of which neither seems to be aware. Please don't
take that in what Steiner would call a "smutty" way, for I am not implying
repressed sexual anything. On a psychic level, sadomasochism is
a state of polarization in which one partner takes a path of descent, the
other a path of ascent. As the submissive goes down into the dark, irrational,
death-oriented underground of the subconscious, the dominant ascends to
blazing heights of clarity, precision and control. The temporary objectification
or casting-out of the inferior element fills him with vitality and strength.
It's called "dominant euphoria."
Alice's preferred direction of movement seems to have been downward,
Steiner's upward, so they were well-suited as partners in such a dance.
His evident dominant euphoria is what makes this particular volume of his
lectures is so much fun to read. In place of his usual dreamy, diffident
circumlocutions, we get swashbuckling declarative sentences, exultantly
witty common sense and bold self-assertion. His gleeful wrath does not
stop with Alice. It slashes into all that is neurotic and silly and ineffectual
in his own creation--the Anthroposophical Society. About that, he is brilliantly
precise, and his lectures are well worth reading for their analysis of
what's wrong with the Society even now. The abrupt changes of level that
make his remarks so laugh-out-loud funny are a welcome comedown from the
dreamy oxygen-deprived heights where he himself had placed the thing. He's
cruel, yet somehow likeable. The euphoria is infectious.
Lucifer is the original and archetypal dominant euphoric. So perhaps
Alice got to play her favorite role in one last mystery drama authored
by her teacher. A vitriolic letter sent to her by one Mary Peet, a month
after Alice's expulsion, thoroughly castigates her and then says this about
Steiner: "He has been able through his power of logic and clear and right
thinking to feed us with the bread of Wisdom and Life, and has truly been
a Light-bringer to us all. [Italics mine.]
A Task Set Before the Soul
"He alone has a true interest in the past who
seeks in it the causes of the future which is to be shaped into reality.
He is then both practically and morally impressed by the value of the past
for the future, he looks back upon it with an eye which seeks the task
for the future of the world karma arising from the past. And from this
retrospect, there results for the soul the most valuable gift which the
past can bestow; namely, the kindling of the will to fulfill that task
which knowledge of the past sets before the soul." --Valentin
The principal characters in this drama have died and, great souls all,
have no doubt long since forgiven each other and transcended the emotions
and circumstances that motivated them back in 1915. If we adopt the same
detachment from what is transient, the thoughts they expressed can be seen
as a conversation about issues that continue to concern anthroposophy today.
In order that Alice Sprengel and Heinrich Goesch might be equal participants
in that conversation, it has been necessary to rescue their reputations
from past slanders. The point is not to condemn Steiner, but to restore
the credibility of his adversaries so that the value of their contribution
can be recognized. Goesch and Sprengel were able to see what was in Steiner's
blind spot, what will continue to be in the blind spot of anthroposophy
so long as shrines are built to the human errors of its founder.
Even as he was lobbying for the expulsion of Sprengel and Goesch, Steiner
exhorted members to "Please be aware that the simple measure of expelling
someone will never accomplish anything. Expulsion cannot resolve any concern
of the Society." He himself recognized that the 1915 episode was expressive
of the dynamics of the organization as a whole. He had insight into some
of these dynamics and made a good faith effort to address them. But he
never really got to the bottom of the matter because he was meanwhile getting
rid of the two people who were able to see what a leader can seldom see
without assistance--his own contribution to the problem. So let us restage
the conversation Steiner might have had with Goesch and Sprengel had he
embraced them as friends.
Why Can't Anthroposophists Be Nice?
A mood of guilty failure seems to pervade discussions by anthroposophists
of the Society's history--a persistent sense that people didn't do what
they were supposed to have done, that they let Steiner down by failing
to realize his vision. The history of the Society after his death in 1925
is an embarrassing tale of petty quarrels and lamentable decisions. Expulsion
continued to be the method of choice for resolving personal and ideological
differences. Some believe that Steiner's chosen successor was one of the
individuals expelled in the 1930's. One of the most frequent internal criticisms
to be expressed is that anthroposophists just aren't very nice. They fault
themselves and each other for an inability to create an atmosphere of Christian
fellowship, to care and express caring on a personal level.
In contrast, I think of my neighborhood block club. Lacking all spiritual
pretensions, the members still manage to discuss issues tactfully and courteously,
come to accord and take practical action together. They display genuine
human concern for each other, noticing when someone has a need and fulfilling
it without being asked. Are they simply better people than anthroposophists?
I don't think so. Anthroposophists encounter greater difficulty because
they're attempting to live simultaneously in more than one dimension.
Neighborhood relations can be described as horizontal. All members
of the block club are considered equals, and all possess roughly the same
ability to perceive and comprehend the situations they are trying to manage
together, because these situations exist on the physical plane. The potholes
in the pavement and the street gang hanging out on the corner are observable
by all, and all can agree that they have a mutual interest in solving these
Spiritual communities have a horizontal dimension too, but at the same
time, members feel themselves to exist in relation to beings and truths
that are above them. Anthroposophists believe in a heavenly hierarchy
ascending through various ranks of angels right up to the divine trinity.
Corresponding to these ranks of beings are stages of initiation. The higher
the initiate, the higher the beings with whom he or she is capable of communing.
As concerns the vertical dimension, members differ significantly in what
they are able to perceive and comprehend. Recognition of this difference
leads logically to a human hierarchy. Steiner's authority over his students
derived from their impression that he had access to higher degrees of knowledge
than they did.
This distinction illuminates part of the clash between Goesch and Steiner.
Goesh attempted to approach Steiner man-to-man about what he saw as horizontal
matters--how Steiner as a human being was relating to other human beings.
He was assuming a democracy in which any individual is free to offer feedback
to any other individual. Steiner, in his huffy, how-dare-you reaction was
coming from a hierarchical perspective in which feedback from a perceived
inferior could be considered an affront.
Only a vertical perspective can acquit Steiner of the charge of extreme
arrogance in his dealings with Goesch. Yet much of Steiner's humor during
the period of the scandal derived from recasting what was being viewed
vertically into horizontal terms. Consider, for instance, this send-up
of anthroposophists in love:
"Now, in ordinary bourgeois life, it happens that people fall
in love, that a man falls in love with a woman. People simply call it "falling
in love" and that's the plain and simple truth. In esoteric societies men
and women also fall in love; the possibility cannot be ruled out, as some
of you know from experience. But in that case, what you hear about it is
not as simple as "X has fallen in love with Y." In esoteric societies,
what you hear about it often goes something like this: "Having thoroughly
examined my karma, I find that another personality has entered it, and
we have realized that karma has destined us to be with each other and to
intervene in the destiny of the world in a particular way."
In the same lecture, he explains why it is a mistake to apply such exalted
spiritual concepts to ordinary human affairs:
"The force that enables us to understand the spiritual world
belongs only in the spiritual world; this same force causes all kinds of
harm if it is directly and thoughtlessly transferred to the physical plane.
For what is the nature of this force? It consists in making one's thinking
independent of the physical plane. When this capacity is applied to the
physical plane itself, it turns into deceit and dishonesty. Thus, people
who were called upon to disseminate spiritual science have always seen
great danger in doing so, because what is needed for understanding higher
planes of existence is harmful when applied directly to the physical world."
Goesch said something remarkably similar:
"Christian occultists must take up a challenge that other people
will face only in times to come; that is, to both live and be a seer. They
are in constant danger of falsely confusing these different planes and
the laws that govern them."
So, both Goesch and Steiner recognized a distinction between horizontal
and vertical and a need not to confuse the two. Alas, that is easier said
than done, for the interplay between the spiritual and material worlds
is the very crux of anthroposophical thought. All that exists on the physical
plane began as concept in the spiritual worlds, and the beings with whom
Steiner communicated had a lot to say about goings-on in the physical world.
His lectures are full of revelations concerning agriculture, medicine,
child-rearing and other practical human endeavors.
Imagine then, a committee of anthroposophists facing a simple question
such as "Shall we serve coffee after the lecture?" This would seem to be
a strictly horizontal decision, one that could safely be delegated to even
the newest member. Anthroposophists, though, would consider that caffeine
might have an effect on the etheric body and, not feeling completely confident
of their own ability to perceive the etheric body or the effect of a cup
of java upon it, encounter questions and doubts that would be inconceivable
in ordinary human organizations where the coffee decision is made quite
routinely. In their perplexity, they would, naturally enough, seek the
counsel of a great initiate.
Now the great initiate, if he wishes to avoid being pestered night and
day with such questions, would be wise to shrug and respond, "Beats me."
But Steiner, it seems, never met a question he didn't like. The shrug was
not in his repertoire. He complained repeatedly that members of the Society
were failing to take initiative, that they were wearing him out by insisting
on his participation in the most trivial administrative matters. He had
become an esoteric micro-manager, unable to delegate even when he wanted
to. And this can be traced to the fact, that despite his avowals, there
was no horizontal matter that he or his students regarded as strictly
In the social life of a spiritual community, a strict separation between
the horizontal and the vertical cannot be maintained. Community life is
moral life, and the moral is the meeting point of vertical and horizontal.
While failure to conceptually isolate one dimension from another is a cause
of much craziness, failure to bring them together is a cause of stagnation.
Healthy spiritual life, both for the individual and for the community,
is a matter of circulation--fluent movement from one dimension to another,
and within each dimension according to its own laws.
In Steiner's view, spiritual knowledge is attained through an ascending
movement of the soul. One encounters spiritual beings through that part
of the human being that is most like them--the faculty of sense-free thinking.
For instance, one thinks the pure concept of Beauty without forming mental
pictures of any specific examples of beauty. Steiner taught that at this
level, concepts are objective-i.e. independent of the thinker, just as
the equation 2 + 2 = 4 is the same thought, no matter who thinks it. Moral
concepts (such as truth, justice, freedom, etc.) are likewise objective
when apprehended at this level of sense-free thinking. And because all
human beings can think these concepts, morality, at the highest level,
is not relative.
To ascend to this level of pure thought, one must leave behind the "heavier"
elements of one's being, the thoughts, feelings and sensations associated
with being incarnate in a physical body and a particular time, place and
set of circumstances. As incarnate human personalities, we are full of
hopes and fears, sympathies and antipathies. In the realm of material truth,
this subjectivity cannot lead us too far astray, for physical facts act
as a natural corrective. But judgement of spiritual truth is very readily
distorted by the human personality. So the seeker of higher truth must
learn to recognize, subdue and think independently of his or her subjective
Much that constitutes the subjective, personal element--the life of
feelings and desires--is, in occult vocabulary, referred to as the "astral
body." Through spiritual practice, it develops a certain independence from
the physical body. Something quite similar to this phenomenon can be observed
on the Internet where, detached from the body, feeling and desire take
on a life of their own, leading to intense expressions of passion or anger
toward people one has never met in the flesh. That's what independent astrality
is like. Steiner said that its fundamental quality is egotism. That is
his own explanation of why people in spiritual communities are not very
nice--that egotism becomes more pronounced as the astral body develops
independence. He believed that the self-seeking quality of astral body
is never really overcome. Instead, altruism is achieved by enlarging the
sense of "self" until it embraces all of humanity, so that in self-seeking
one is seeking the good of all. That portion of the astral body that has
been thus ennobled, Steiner referred to as the "pure, chaste, wise Virgin
The apex to which one ascends in pursuit of spiritual knowledge is not
only sense-free, but wordless--a selfless union with the object of knowledge.
This experience, seen in isolation, is referred to as mysticism. The mystical
is transformed into gnosis--i.e. communicable knowledge--when the will-to-know
of the seeker meets, at the threshold of the higher worlds, a corresponding
will-to-be-known on the part of higher beings that radiates downward. So
gnostic attainment is at once an ability to ascend to spiritual knowledge
and also to become a human vehicle for its downward radiance. Just as subjectivity
can impede proper upward movement, it can also garble the message on the
journey back down to the realm of human communication.
In a community of gnostics, then, perceived credibility is very much
connected with perceived objectivity--one's knack for detaching from the
subjective and personal. To put the politics rather bluntly, when jockeying
for position in a gnostic hierarchy, one discredits an opponent by accusing
him of subjectivity. Steiner attempted to discredit Goesch and Sprengel
by implying that they were carrying repressed sexual desires into the spiritual.
Earlier in this article, I countered by pointing out the "shadow" characteristics
of Steiner's personality--i.e. his own unredeemed astrality--that may have
impeded his judgement. In games of gnostic oneupsmanship, drawing attention
to the opponent's human personality is the quickest way to level the playing
It is human nature to attempt to close the gap between ideal and actual
attainment with posturing. To the extent that objectivity is valued and
not yet attained, people will tend to simulate objectivity as best
they can. While Steiner's actual attainment was great, he was not above
the occasional simulation. Take for example his assertion that psychoanalysis
was a "smutty theory." He said:
"Those who have gone through a real struggle to understand
what psychoanalysis actually is can freely call it a smutty theory without
losing their objectivity. It is as objective to call psychoanalysis a smutty
theory as it is to say that canvas is white and charcoal black. It is objective
terminology derived from true insight into human nature in its totality."
"Smutty" is an adjective inspired by sexual shame, the awkwardness of the
spirit in being neither wholly attached to nor detached from the physical
body. It is a feeling unique to incarnate human beings, not a product of
the sense-free thinking that can properly be called objective.
Steiner wrote: "In the present epoch, the I asserts itself in the domain
of thought. We hear such things as 'This is my point of view' or 'This
is what I thin'" as though it mattered what this or that person thinks,
as if it were not much more important to discover the truth. No matter
what a person may think, it is a proven fact that the sum of the three
angles of any triangle is 180 degrees."
But to introduce a statement with "I think" can be an expression of
humility rather than self-assertion. It implies subjectivity, and the freedom
of the listener to think otherwise. No one would think of beginning a mathematical
postulate with "I think" but it is indeed a suitable opening for an evaluative
statement about psychoanalysis. For while moral ideals such as beauty,
truth and goodness are, at the highest level, objective, evaluation of
earthly phenomena in relation to these ideals can never be purely objective.
Subjectivity enters into both the perception of material phenomena through
the physical senses and the expression of one's conclusions. The connotative
nuances of language, when used to make evaluative statements, can never
be entirely removed.
Steiner, in claiming absolute and objective status for relative and
subjective utterances, endowed his own statements with more authority than
they necessarily deserved. The fact that he was capable of ascending
to a very high level of spiritual cognition does not mean that he was doing
so whenever he rendered an opinion. To some extent, it was Steiner's own
pretensions that have led anthroposophists to treat his every offhand remark
as an ex cathedra pronouncement. Many have also learned to mimic
his verbal mannerisms, simulating objectivity through a peculiar style
of diction that strips out the personal pronoun and any terms that might
suggest feeling. Personal opinions and prejudices take on an unassailable
quality when expressed in this manner.
Marriage counselors and others who teach conflict resolution recommend
precisely the opposite manner of speaking. They encourage opponents to
"own" their subjectivity through the use of "I statements," to say how
the other person's action is making them feel instead of labeling them
with negative judgements. Owning feelings as subjective and relative opens
up room for negotiation. Too bad this hadn't yet been thought of in Steiner's
day. Imagine how differently the Dornach matter might have unfolded if
Steiner had said to Sprengel, "I felt embarrassed by your letters."
Sprengel owned her feelings to a remarkable degree, given the setting
she found herself in. In her second letter, she admits to being angry that
Steiner didn't assign her a role she had coveted in one of his mystery
dramas, and goes on to say that she is probably to be faulted for not having
expressed herself at the time. Such admissions may seem commonplace to
us, but considering the authority and the hostility to emotion of the man
to whom they were addressed, they are quite daring. Beneath her tremulous
exterior, Alice was operating from some conviction that bears closer examination.
She wrote: "I feel that everything that was to develop in me and flow
into our movement through me has been buried alive." Steiner seems to have
taken this as evidence of her vanity. He was referring to Alice when he
said, "In fact we also made a point of admitting people [to the Society]
to help them become healthy. And then what happened? Other members began
to regard one of these people, someone who was to be helped by being admitted,
as a kind of apostle, as someone who was there to heal the Society." Between
the lines of this ridicule, Steiner is letting us know that Alice's belief
that she had something important to contribute had credibility with at
least some members.
So what was the nature of this contribution? To see it, we will have
to explore another region of the vertical. So far we have examined a soul
movement that travels upward from the horizon line. But there is a second
movement, a vertical descent that dives below the horizon.
In his lecture series, The Most Holy Trinosophia, Robert Powell
"The relationship between mankind and Mother Nature was disturbed
at the time of the Fall. Not only was man cast out of paradise, but nature
also fell. The Mother descended into the darkness of the underworld; the
sub-earthly spheres-comprising "hell"-were inserted between mankind and
the Mother. The direct connection between the Father and the Mother also
was cut off. However, a new connection was established at the time of the
Mystery of Golgotha, through Christ's descent into hell. The deeper significance
of the Descent into Hell has remained veiled up until now, and instead
attention has been focused upon the Ascension, the ascent to the Father.
Now, in our time, the Descent into Hell-or rather, the descent through
hell down to the Mother-is of key significance for an understanding of
the Second Coming. With the Descent into Hell at the Mystery of Golgotha,
Christ re-established contact with the Mother, implanting a seed within
the womb of the Earth for the redemption of the Mother."
This is the Sophia at the bottom. To get to her, one has to go down, down
through fallen nature, the sub-earthly spheres. Through hell. And what
is crucial to understand is that none of the methods employed on a path
of ascent apply here. To go up, one must cast off the heavier elements
of the self--all that derives from the body, including human emotions.
But to go down, one must become heavier. One needs the full weight
of incarnate experience in order to sink. Thinking alone won't do it. Thinking
refuses to sink, because the descent into Hell is irrational. On
a path of descent, thinking is the strong swimmer that must be exhausted
before one can drown.
Downward spiritual movement is most often involuntarily. It tends to
come about when our fallen astrality lands us in some pickle that we can't
transcend our way out of, when some combination of inward nature and outer
circumstances plunges us into doubt, confusion and despair. Paradoxically,
downward movement--if carried all the way to the bottom--brings about a
self-emptying that creates renewed openness to higher intuitions. It is
difficult to empty oneself in this way through the willed movement of ascent
alone, for a subtle arrogance almost inevitably arises along with self-conquest.
The initiate, pulling himself heavenward by his bootstraps like some spiritual
Horatio Alger, feels pride in this accomplishment. Attempts to extinguish
this pride through will alone lead to a vicious circle in which the attempt
itself is a further source of pride. Rescue from this predicament comes
in the form of a banana peel cast on the spiritual path.
Perhaps the most prominent modern revival of the mysteries of descent
is the Twelve Step Movement, which began with Alcoholics Anonymous. Steiner
taught that the failure to keep any resolution of the will inhibits spiritual
progress. This is quite true of upward spiritual movement. But for the
twelve-stepper, it is precisely this inability to master oneself that propels
the downward journey. In order to encounter the "higher power" that can
save him, the alcoholic must "hit bottom"--a nadir of absolute helplessness,
shame and despair. At that point, he has a transformative experience that
re-integrates body, soul and spirit. The state of inner conflict
that has rendered self-mastery impossible is healed.
In Twelve Step programs, there is no distinction between helper and
helpee. No one can join out of a desire to teach or save others. Failure
is the only admission ticket. All the "apostles" are there to be healed.
In structure, it is a perfectly horizontal organization-no hierarchy whatsoever.
The motto "one day at a time" undercuts even the potential status a member
might gain from having years of sobriety under his belt. Twelve-steppers
don't refer to themselves as "recovered," only as "recovering." Denial
of emotion is roughly confronted. Tears flow freely. The only truths that
count are those expressed in first person. Everything you're not supposed
to do on a path of ascent gets done.
Goesch seems to have found another path of descent in psychoanalysis.
In his obituary of Goesch, Paul Fechter wrote:
"He took up this new subject passionately, not as a theoretical,
conceptual, or abstract object of study and experience, but plunging with
his whole being and all the strength he possessed into this stream that
opened up before him and led into new depths. He did not study psychoanalysis,
he experienced it through and through, making himself the object of his
own analysis, descending into the shocks and ecstasies of the darkness
that opened up in front of him with a total disregard for how it might
affect his everyday existence. At once, he began to pull the theory out
of the realm of science and into his immediate personal experience."
Again, note the path-of-descent elements: the "shocks and ecstasies of
the darkness," the "plunging with his whole being," the disregard for everyday
existence. The journey is wildly incautious, messy and, above all, subjective.
Everything you shouldn't do on the upward path of thinking.
So this is the impulse that Goesch and Sprengel had to contribute: they
knew about going down. And it is therefore no mere hubris for Alice to
say that in rejecting her, Steiner buried alive an impulse that might have
flowed into his movement. The Sophia for whom he was preparing it had two
addresses, and Steiner was reluctant to call on her at her second place
of residence. He knew her as Raphael's Sistine Madonna, the pure, chaste,
wise celestial virgin. But the fallen woman, the sadder-but-wiser gal at
the bottom, he was too fastidious to meet.
Room must be kept open, however, for the possibility that Steiner knew
what he was excluding and did so out of perceived historical necessity.
He was working in a time of extreme polarization between materialistic
science and a flaky, neurasthenic, things-that-go-bump-in-the-night "spiritualism"
that gave all spirituality a bad name. To combat materialism it was necessary
to present the spiritual in terms of equal objectivity and rigor-as spiritual
science. The chaotic and subjective quality of downward spiritual
movement would have muddled his argument. He might have seen it as especially
dangerous in 1915, when all of Europe seemed to be losing its reason. According
to Robert Powell, the proper time for the new mysteries of descent was
not to arrive until thirty years later, when the etheric Christ began his
descent through hell. Steiner was acutely aware of timing in spiritual
matters, and may have recognized in his adversaries the right impulse coming
at the wrong time.
It is this acute historical awareness of Steiner's that anthroposophists
tend to overlook when they attempt to apply his every utterance to the
present. To allow statements made in a particular historical context to
remain frozen in time does him a great disservice. He would be the first
to rejoice in the resurrection of impulses he felt it his duty to bury
in 1915, if those impulses were demonstrated to be good in the present.
Consecrating the Horizontal
Upward movement, of necessity, exaggerates an inner hierarchy
in which spirit stands superior to body and soul. Its fruit is knowledge
and its social manifestation is authority. Downward movement is just the
opposite--a state of inner anarchy. In terms of knowledge, the journey
is nothing to write home about, for judgement is clouded and beings encountered
on the way down are declassé. Dispatches from hell will never
pass as higher spiritual knowledge. The fruit of a journey to the bottom
is healing. One descends as a chaotic whole--body, soul and spiri-t-and
encounters at the bottom a loving receptivity that embraces and reintegrates
this whole. The self is then experienced as an inner democracy--body,
soul and spirit in horizontal relationship, no one tyrannizing the others.
Valentin Tomberg speaks of Jesus Christ as the perfection of this integration:
"For He is the realization of all for which the better nature
of Man-all that is wholesome in his body, soul and spirit-is yearning.
The rule of spirit over soul and body will, indeed, never lastingly satisfy
man, for all asceticism of the spirit towards the body is inwardly cynical,
and all asceticism of the spirit towards the soul is inwardly cruel. He
who tries to follow 'truth only' as straight as a dart, is first strict
as regards himself, then strict as regards others, then cruel towards himself,
and finally cruel towards others. He will then perhaps have great ideas
and intentions, but in working out these ideas and intentions, he will
ruthlessly thrust aside much which has a right to life and prosperity.
Neither can asceticism of the soul towards the body ever be satisfying;
it turns into either a febrile mysticism or a febrile morality. Even the
asceticism of the soul towards the spirit-which does also exist-leads,
in the present age, not to a 'holy simplicity' but to cunning and hypocrisy.
He who denies himself development of the free life of thought, begins to
think with his subconscious, that is, he becomes crafty, and his 'pure
soul' becomes for him a means to an end. But that which all true, healthy
humanity desires is the free alliance of body, soul and spirit in love.
This alliance was perfected in Jesus of Nazareth."
Through the incarnation of Christ the horizontal was consecrated, became
a spiritual dimension, as sacred as the vertical. Both Goesch and
Sprengel hinted at this in their letters to Steiner. Goesch wrote:
"When I wonder about the emotions with which you will receive
this letter, the question of whether you will find your way to people with
whom you can go through this experience and begin the necessary transformations
weighs on me especially heavily. This is an area where, in this Christian
age, the occultist as such is bound to fail and must be simply a human
among humans, just as Christ Jesus had to experience things on earth that
he could not experience as a God."
It is the humanity of Christ, his experiencing things on earth as
a human among humans, that consecrates the horizontal. For it is in subjective
experience as a human that we most feel ourselves to be among
"Nothing in my own soul or in any single soul could ever help
me over this abyss. Only the spark leaping from soul to soul, the spark
that is so weak now, so very weak, can make the miracle happen now . .
What is significant here is that she doesn't believe Steiner as a "single
soul" is any more capable than she is of getting over the abyss. Between
soul and soul she is seeing a third element--the relationship of
the two. The spark. This miracle of "the spark leaping from soul to soul"
is the invoking of Christ's presence. "Wherever two or more are gathered
in my name, I am with you."
During the crisis, Steiner kept asserting that no one had a right to
demand that he form personal relationships with his students nor to dictate
the nature of those relationships. If we're looking at the matter from
a strictly horizontal perspective, he's right. In the horizontal, he is
an equal among equals. As plain old Rudolf, he is no more responsible for
the social life of the Society than any other member, and as free as anyone
else in it to choose his own friends.
"Plain old Rudolf" is an artificial construct, though, as both Steiner
and Goesch well knew. His students didn't view him as an equal, nor did
he view himself that way. Social hierarchy in any path-of-ascent setting
reflects the reality that some people do indeed ascend higher. Respectful
awareness of the path of descent and of the sacredness of the horizontal
can moderate the hierarchical tendencies of a spiritual community, but
not eliminate them altogether. The pretext of perfect equality simply leads
people to become dishonest about the pecking order that exists in any organization,
sneaky in their status-seeking and disingenuous about their power. If a
teacher or leader is to avoid abusing his influence it is necessary for
him--and for his follower-s-to fully recognize that he has this
influence. In principal at least, Goesch and Steiner agreed on this point.
Goesch, in his letter, criticized the Society not for being a hierarchy
per se, but for being what he called a "false hierarchy." The falseness,
in his view, was in the way Society officials lorded it over members, refusing
to listen to criticism or to explain the reasons behind their actions.
The ideal he offered as an alternative was a hierarchy in which those at
the top served those below, and were accountable to them, a hierarchy based
on the "washing of the feet." In the passage below, he tried to explain
to Steiner what he wanted of him:
"Fully Christian occultists can never rest content with simply
passing on teachings; they must also enter into a life partnership with
their students. True relationships from person to person in the Christian
sense require each one of us to be an open book to all others to the extent
their individual strength permits. All people should give themselves completely
to their fellow to whatever extent the latter can receive them. This should
be the basis of any modern hierarchy. Those higher up in the hierarchy
must turn to those then with whatever they have to give."
No one can justly accuse Steiner of a lack of generosity or service to
his students. He seems to have devoted his every waking hour to teaching,
counseling and Society administration. It is no wonder that he responded
defensively to the suggestion that he should be doing even more. What Goesch
is faulting him for, though, is not a lack of exertion, but rather effort
in the wrong direction. And here's where the worst of the misunderstanding
arose between them. For, as expressed by Goesch, the Christian hierarchy
sounds more like a horizontal structure, a "life partnership" in which
the teacher relates person-to-person as if equal. Yet no one is
quicker than Goesch to reproach Steiner for the dishonesty of that "as
if," for the abuse of power the ensues when power is denied. So, to all
appearances, he is placing mutually exclusive demands on Steiner, putting
him in a double bind.
Like anyone in a double bind, Steiner was irritated, and also, it seems,
genuinely bewildered. He protested that members should not expect to have
personal relationships with him, that he could not be available to them
in that way.
"Something I always advocate and repeatedly mention because it is obviously
part of my task is the fact that what I can mean to another person must
be determined only by the spiritual aspect of our movement. And it is crucial
that this spiritual factor, this purely spiritual factor uniting us, not
Steiner denounced what he called "the personal element" pretty consistently
over the years, blaming it for whatever was currently going wrong in the
Society. When "personal" is used as an antonym for "spiritual" the impression
given is of that ascetism of spirit toward the soul that Tomberg characterized
as cruel--both toward oneself and toward others. And, as we have seen,
Steiner's attitude did result in a certain cruelty toward Goesch and Sprengel.
Rather than decry this, let's attempt to understand his reasons.
As the astral body acquires independence, it grows stronger. Both the
redeemed and unredeemed aspects of it, in their growing strength, are able
to exert influence over weaker astral bodies. Thus the comparatively weaker
astral body of a neophyte is susceptible to both good and bad influence
by the stronger personality of an advanced practitioner or teacher. This
is the phenomenon Goesch was calling "occult influence." Both men agreed
that it was harmful. So, as Steiner saw it, if his astral body was so powerful
that even a handshake could exert undue influence, where was the logic
in expecting him to enter into intimate personal relationships with his
students? What Goesch was asking of him was so contradictory as to appear
And indeed, so it seems--so long as one is looking only at the upper
vertical dimension. In ascending spiritual movement, the unredeemed aspects
of personality are cast aside, orphaned in all their dangerous strength
and independence. It is through downward movement that these potentially
harmful elements are more healthfully reintegrated. The dark side of the
personality is confronted and forgiven. As the Twelve Step movement demonstrates,
social relationships among those who have taken this journey are characterized
by candor, humility and compassion. This is what Goesch was getting at
about becoming "an open book." He was coming from an idea that has become
commonplace in contemporary culture but which, in the Europe of 1915 must
have seemed very strange: the idea that self-disclosure is a good. That
confession was good for the soul, people knew. But Goesch took the further
step of understanding that confession could be good for those hearing
Open confession of unredeemed astral tendencies undercuts their power
to influence others unconsciously. When undertaken by a teacher, the confession
both teaches and warns. For instance, in admitting to spiritual pride,
the teacher tactfully alerts students to this possibility in themselves
while at the same time warning them to watch out for this tendency in him.
That is, I believe, the possibility Goesch was seeing. Steiner, instead
of expelling his shadow in the form of Alice, could have "owned" it, confessed
it, been forgiven for it. In turn, he could have forgiven Alice. Then there
really could have been such a being as "plain old Rudolf," one who
could realistically hope to nurture and be nurtured by relationships in
Personal vs. Spiritual
So far I have argued that the "personal" is appropriate to horizontal
and downward vertical movement, while leaving unchallenged Steiner's assumption
that it has no place in upward vertical movement. But is this the case?
The spiritual worlds are not without personality. On the contrary, it is
personality that enables the seeker to distinguish one spiritual being
from another, to recognize the source of an inspiration as, say, Michael
rather than Lucifer. The seeker himself likewise has a spiritual personality
that becomes more, not less, distinct through inner development work.
The anonymous author of Meditations on the Tarot, in his reflections
on the Priestess, makes a helpful distinction between two approaches to
higher knowledge. One path holds being as the highest value. As
expressed by Etienne Gilson: "There is but one God and this God is Being."
The principle of being is morally neutral and passive, an unalterable fact
apprehended through pure objectivity. The second path holds love
as the highest value. God as love is both active and morally good, and
apprehended subjectively. The author goes on to state that one tends to
find what one seeks.
"The seeker for true being will arrive at the experience of
repose in being, and as there cannot be two true beings, or two separate
co-eternal substances, but only one being and one substance,
the center of 'false being' will be suppressed ('false being' = ahamkara,
or the illusion of the separate existence of a separate substance of 'self.')
The characteristic of this mystical way is that one loses the capacity
to cry. An advanced pupil of yoga or Vedanta will for ever have dry eyes,
whilst the masters of the Cabbala, according to the Zohar, cry much
and often. Christian mysticism speaks also of the 'gift of tears'-as a
precious gift of divine grace. The Master cried in front of the tomb of
Lazarus. Thus the outer characteristic of those who choose the other mystical
way, that of the God of love, is that they have the 'gift of tears'. This
is in keeping with the very essence of their mystical experience. Their
union with the Divine is not the absorption of their being by Divine Being,
but rather the experience of the breath of Divine Love, the illumination
of Divine Love, and the warmth of Divine Love. The soul which receives
this undergoes such a miraculous experience that it cries. In this mystical
experience fire meets with FIRE. Then nothing is extinguished in the human
personality, but on the contrary, everything is set ablaze. This is the
experience of 'legitimate twofoldness' or the union of two separate substances
in one sole essence. The substances remain separate as long as they are
bereft of that which is the most precious in all existence: free alliance
This author also mentions that the choice between being and love is not
so much a choice between points of view as between "attitudes of soul."
This is, perhaps, a crucial distinction when it comes to understanding
Steiner. As a Christian, he believed in a God who was active and morally
good, and in the freedom of the individual to remain separate or to join
with God in love. His work is saturated with these ideas--there can be
no doubt that he believed this way. Yet his "attitude of soul" was that
of the dry-eyed, objective seeker of pure being who could write "Thy tears
only dim the pure clarity of thought." It cannot be said of Steiner's approach
to inner work that "nothing is extinguished in the human personality."
There were aspects of the personality that he was all for casting off.
The casting off of a part of the self is a somewhat artificial state
of affairs, meant to apply to formal meditation and study, not the whole
of one's earthly existence. If all spiritual work were solitary, we might
be able to state flatly that this artificial condition has no place in
social life, that in relation to others one should always operate out of
the whole human personality--i.e. act normal. But with the Anthroposophical
Society, Steiner was attempting communal vertical movement, a simultaneous
ascent through thinking undertaken by a group of people together. He made
this point most powerfully in his lecture of September 11, 1915, "The Anthroposophical
Society as a Living Being." He said that any living organism, if it dies,
leaves behind a corpse that must be disposed of if it is not to have a
detrimental effect on its surroundings. The corpse of the Anthroposophical
Society, were it to die, would be his own lectures. They would become
actively harmful, as a decaying carcass is harmful, unless kept alive by
the living body of the community. In fact, he was initially opposed to
their being transcribed and published, so essential did he believe the
social context to their meaning and value. The listeners at the lectures
were not hearing an after-the-fact report of a vertical ascent made by
Steiner in the past. They were making it with him, in the present.
For this reason, Steiner tried to efface as much of his human personality
as possible in his public appearances. He said he wished he could lecture
behind a screen so that his listeners could experience his words undistracted
by the speaker. Focus on his personality could only be a hindrance, dragging
his audience down into the mundane when they might be flying. Just as in
solitary meditation the unbridled subjectivity of the lower self must be
checked, so this same element must be removed from group meetings if those
encounters were to become communal meditation.
As it happened, this was the only way in which Steiner wished
to relate to Society members. His appetite for mutual ascent was boundless,
but other forms of social interaction seem to have bored or overwhelmed
him. It was all so much chitchat and tittle-tattle to him. He seems to
have felt particular distaste for the politics that inevitably arise when
people attempt to take action together. Rather than negotiate solutions
to conflicting needs and desires, he simply dismissed such needs and desires
as more of the despised "personal element." And so it has come to pass
that a checking of the personal necessary for communal flights of ecstatic
thinking has been generalized into a mistrust of personality altogether.
While anthroposophists can't help having personalities, they often seem
to be doing their level best not to display them. Those "sympathies and
antipathies" that have no place in meditative consciousness, they attempt
to expel from heart and mind altogether. Equanimity, as practiced by anthroposophists
is not the rollicking good humor of the Buddha, but a tepid and vaguely
reproachful blandness. It's as if they are afraid that if they make a sudden
move, something will spill over.
As a result, anthroposophy is a spiritual movement singularly lacking
in magnetism. It's nerdy. Steiner had predicted that its membership would
have grown to half a million by the close of the 20th century,
but it has only achieved a tenth of that. A more serious consequence of
neglecting the "personal element" is that conflict resolution skills are
practically non-existent. Confessing needs and feelings is a precondition
to working through conflict, but Steiner's disapproval of personal needs
and feelings continues to reverberate. Lofty and objective-sounding reasons
must be found for one's desires or displeasures. First the spat is raised
to an ideological confrontation of World Historical Significance, and then
one of the parties is expelled "with compassion and deep regret." The inner
gesture of rejecting undesirable elements of the self is replicated socially
in the rejection of others.
Let's take another look at those hypothetical lovers Steiner mocked
for attributing their engagement to karma. It is indeed laughably pretentious
announce one's engagement by saying, "Having thoroughly examined my karma,
I find that another personality has entered it, and we have realized that
karma has destined us to be with each other and to intervene in the destiny
of the world in a particular way." Fault may be found with this as a way
of speaking, but is anything wrong with it as a way of thinking? Steiner
seems to be implying that the couple are using the spiritual as a rationalization
for their mutual attraction. But might it not be the actual reason
for this attraction? To wish to intervene constructively in the destiny
of the world is the essence of purified astrality, of selfishness transformed
into altruism. Since both redeemed and unredeemed tendencies co-exist in
a all human beings, the possibilities of confusion and self-deception are
great. Is a strict separation between the spiritual and the personal the
best or only way to prevent this?
Knowledge gained in the vertical does not become moral until
it moves one's will in the horizontal. It must enter the life of feeling
and of action where, inevitably, it becomes personal. Say for example that
out of the altruistic part of his being, a person desires to lead and therefore
decides to run for public office. Both the redeemed and the fallen aspects
of this person's nature will then want to win the election. It is both
a selfish and an unselfish desire. If he were to wait until, through strenuous
work on inner development, he had purged his soul of all selfish ambition,
many election years would come and go without his declaring candidacy.
The longing for purity would become paralysis.
To say that spiritual motives should not be offered for ordinary actions
is to deprive higher knowledge of moral resonance. And alas, this attitude
seems to have taken hold. Far too often, anthroposophical discussion has
become an exchange of esoteric factoids that have no discernable relevance
to life as it is lived. In order for anthroposophy to become a moral force
in the world, its practitioners must integrate the vertical and horizontal
dimensions, even at the risk of getting them mixed up sometimes.
In other words, anthroposophy, if it is to regain its vitality, must
risk making more messes like the Dornach mess. Its life force at that time
consisted in the very circulation among the various dimensions that made
the events of 1915 so chaotic and embarrassing. When Steiner attempted
to erect a police barricade between the vertical and the horizontal, the
result was that stagnation described by the hexagram ku: rigidity
above, gentle indifference below. To overcome that stagnation, anthroposophists
must get the circulation going again. The spiritual must become personal
and the personal spiritual.
The confusion and self-deception that do indeed ensue from free circulation
cannot be prevented by individual introspection alone. For to assess this
objectively, the individual would have to remain detached. Full-blooded
participation in the moral life of a community requires frequent plunges
into the very subjectivity that cannot rightly judge its own motives. Correction,
then, must come from outside of oneself. In taking the plunge into subjective
speech and action, one risks screwing up and trusts that his companions
will set him straight if he does. The self is an open book that the community
not only reads but edits.
Tibetan Buddhists have an expression to describe life in a spiritual
community. They call it "the Feast of Dharma." In this Feast, what gets
eaten is you. One's whole being in all its redeemed and unredeemed aspects
is offered up to the sangha to be torn to shreds and devoured. This is
my body: take and eat of it. This is my blood: drink of it. Each member
of the community is chewed up, swallowed and processed in the digestion
of the others. It is a Eucharist both savage and ecstatic.
Catholics have a gentler phrase that carries much the same idea. They
speak of the community as "the Mystical Body of Christ." This body is crucified
at the meeting point of vertical and horizontal, and there, too, each member
is nailed. The vine and the branches and also the descending roots, sunk
beneath the surface of the earth, metabolizing rot into nourishment with
the aid of the sun.
It is possible, I believe, to develop an etheric perception of this
body in much the same way one learns to perceive the individual etheric
body. To perceive that, we have to still for a time our perception of the
physical body, stop looking at its various elements so that we can see
the circulation between them. In much the same way, we perceive the mystical
body of the community by softening our focus on individuals and looking
instead into what is arising between, circulating between. You can go back
and forth looking at Goesch, then Steiner, then Goesch, then Steiner, and
each seems to have some good points and some bad points. And then maybe
you try to decide in favor of one or the other, or maybe you try to compromise
between them, arrive at some sort of a synthesis. But if you look into
the "betweenness" instead, what can be seen is the very life force of anthroposophia,
all streaming color and movement. It is quite beautiful. If you contemplate
it long enough, you can feel it circulating in your own bloodstream, filling
you with the vitality of its surging movement. It feels good. Feels like
something you might be thankful for. And there is nothing you need to decide
about it. No need to decide your heartbeat.
© 1997 Catherine MacCoun