Threshold Problems in Thinking

the Threefold Social Order


Joel A. Wendt

As awareness of the idea of the Threefold Social Order (as developed by Rudolf Steiner) increases, it becomes more and more necessary to not lose sight of the fact that this idea owes its existence to a particular way of thinking. The ordinary internal dialog with its cause and effect, or analytically oriented, thinking, which human beings possess as a result of their given conditions of consciousness and the type of education normally received in modern civilization - this inherited way of thinking is not the same kind of cognitive process as gave birth to Steiner's idea.

This presents us with a peculiar dilemma. Can we truly understand this idea without first reproducing the same cognitive process in our own consciousness? If we can understand it without this, can we yet work with it (the idea) well enough to apply it in practice? These are the main questions (there are others), but it will be enough at this point to at least appreciate the need for a certain type of preliminary work, a kind of philosophical (epistemological) reflection.

A short survey of what is being done already today with Steiner's idea will also help. There seem to me to be three general kinds of practices. A first type of practice is to try to incorporate at some kind of small community level, one or another partial aspect of Steiner's conception (such as community owned farms or the co-worker economic structure of Camphill villages). A second type is to recapitulate or otherwise restate, with the addition perhaps of some original work, Steiner's idea in terms of contemporary conditions (such as Hans Lauer's, Aggression and Repression: in the individual and society). A third way is to engage in considerations of whether or not and how to go about applying this idea within the circumstances of some modern political situation (such as current attempts to suggest this idea can be brought into being along with the unification of the two Germany's).

Each of these types of practices seems to me to have certain positive and negative aspects, which I will try to consider in what follows. There is as well a fourth way, which while considerably more difficult, yet seems to me to reveal unusual practical potential. I suspect, and the following will try to show, that it is the unification and integration of all four approaches which is necessary in order to both perceive and apply the threefold social idea in actual contemporary situations.

One of the problems I have with attempts to apply threefolding (another way of referring to Steiner's idea; see Rudi Lissau's, The Roots of Threefolding in Anthroposophy, Anthroposophical Review) into micro (small communities), as opposed to macro (national) circumstances, is that I know of no instance in which Steiner himself used his idea in such a way. In fact, one of his oft repeated remarks, that threefolding was not an utopia, has led me to question just what is really involved in attempts to insert single aspects of this idea into small communities.

I am, by the way, not suggesting that small community applications are incorrect, or otherwise doubtful. The problem to me is more subtle. In trying to understand what Steiner meant by saying threefolding was not utopian, I have come to the conclusion that an essential and fundamental aspect of threefolding is the fact that it comes into the world because the human soul is itself organized in a threefold way and that this organization impresses itself onto the social order so that the soul may find reflected there all that lies within it. This idea has led me to consider that there are two ways in which the threefold social order arises in the actual circumstances of life: one is through the attempts to ideally form communities according to this idea, and the other is a kind of spontaneous generation of threefold conditions out of the interactions between the soul and the social order on both micro and macro levels. (It is my further belief that the true threefolding of a nation can only occur when these two means are brought together, but this is getting ahead of myself.)

In the community in which I live, I (and others) participate in a community farm and in a therapeutic practice, whose economic structures have been influenced consciously by the threefold idea. These are examples of idealistic transformations on the micro level, and are representative, I believe, of an approach to threefolding which is utopian in nature. The problem with an utopian view is that it overlooks (or ignores) the actual social conditions. In the case of the above farm and therapeutic practice, while some people may believe we are living out of a threefold impulse, we are in reality just applying an utopian ideal in circumstances which hold together largely because of the social contract we make (i.e. the economic agreement concerning the financing of the farm and the therapeutic practice). This is not true threefolding because there is no dynamic interplay among three different social spheres of activity. To further appreciate this subtle difference let me describe another situation in the same local community.

Where I live there is a Waldorf school, and therefore a school community. This community had two affective bodies (i.e. organizational forms which carry different tasks in the life of the school: a Board of Trustees and a College of Teachers. One year a very large tuition increase was deemed necessary and out of the resulting social uproar another social form came into being (the Friends of Waldorf Education), which sought to carry the problem of the equalizing of the burdens of tuition, considering that there were many families whose economic situation could not absorb the large tuition increase. It was (and remains) my view that this change represented a spontaneous threefolding of the social community of the school. There existed in this community different impulses of soul, and these different impulses needed three forms (Trustee, Teacher and Friend) in order that the whole character of the soul, as regards this particular social structure (the school community), could find the proper means of expression.  (I later expanded upon this in much detail in the essay: The Social-Spiritual Organism of a Waldorf School Community)

Out of these experiences I have come to believe, that while Steiner did not (to my knowledge) express himself concerning micro threefolding, this nevertheless is a real possibility. Care must be taken, however, to distinguish specialized and utopian social contracts from actual dynamics in small communities where the different capacities of the soul seek to realize themselves in differentiated social forms having a functional threefold relationship.

The second way in which Steiner's idea is applied today is in the restatement of it in accord with modern conditions. A careful reading of Steiner suggests that he was well aware that the threefold social order idea would have to be reformulated not only in accord with time, but also with respect to the different characteristics of the people (or nation) for whom the idea is being developed. We have, for example, the remarkable book Aggression and Repression, by Lauer mentioned above, which places the threefold idea into the context of modern ideas of social and psychological theory of peoples.

The main problem in this area is that there is not enough of this kind of work. Lauer's book is continental in orientation (being originally written in German for a German audience). There does exist some English work, but as far as I know, no truly complete restatement for either the British or the America situations.  The main difficulty here is that there does not seem to be the realization that Steiner's expression of this material, as published around the twenties in Germany, was given in a form suitable for that time and people, but which, regardless of how ably translated, nevertheless does not direct our American consciousness to the appropriate social phenomena. A brief word about the different soul characteristics of the middle Europeans and the Americans may help.

The European has a strong tendency to be more active inwardly, to live more strongly out of ideals. Such a soul often wants to structure human society in accord with the highest ideal. Americans, on the other hand, are problem solvers. We live more in the immediate world and in the practical demands (pragmatism) which go with this kind of orientation. The form in which Steiner then gave the threefold idea, as a strong statement of an ideal structure, was especially appropriate for the soul consciousness which was to receive it. In America, however, we would need to build up the whole conception as a means to solving problems. That is, the problems would have to be identified, and then out of the inner necessity of their particular characteristics one would derive the threefold idea as the solution.

We need now to take a look at the consideration of the threefold idea as a solution to certain recognizable problems resulting from the separation of Eastern Europe out of its previous circumstances. In this regard I have to mention that Steiner spoke in an unusual way in his Oxford lectures (Threefolding as a Social Alternative). He said (here I am paraphrasing) that the time had passed for the application of the threefold social order in central Europe, but that even so, this idea could still be fruitful in Russia and America (if appropriately restated), and that for the West, time did not matter so much because much could still be done for the right ordering of the three spheres.

As much as our hopes ought to wish otherwise, let us consider for a moment just why it might be so that threefolding cannot be instituted in the reuniting of the two Germany's and perhaps in other newly freed areas of Eastern Europe. I am not arguing for this, rather I am taking Steiner's hint and assuming that it will lead me somewhere.

My first observation is that the general soul characteristics of a people may be such that one people is a better vessel for the development of Steiner's idea than some other soul configuration. Middle Europe's idealistic soul gesture may work in such a way that it takes up threefolding in an utopian manner, and that such an approach will bring it about that the application of social threefolding is imposed on a social dynamic which is not ripe for it. We know Steiner urged, especially, that it was essential to free the cultural life. I believe a careful reading of these thoughts will show that this was a condition of the moment i.e. that great good could be done there and then if this emancipation of the cultural and spiritual life was brought about. Such an idea is urged still today, yet I wonder whether it is appropriate. Further, how could we know this?

This leads toward the fourth mode or approach to threefolding which was referred to earlier. We need to remember that the threefold social order is something which already is, which already has being. The problem, as it were, is that the three spheres are not related to each other in healthy ways. Steiner's threefold social order is not an utopian scheme, it is rather a descriptive morphology of social life. He expressed it in the form he did so that it was suitable for a soul gesture which worked from the ideal. He expressed it at the time he did because: First, he was asked to contribute; and second, the social conditions following the war were chaotic, and chaos is always a precondition to incarnating new form. As more and more of the old forms poured back into the post-WWI social life, the opportunity to raise it to a higher level disappeared.

From this we are lead further. If we consider, in an imaginative way, picturing backwards into history from the present, the form and structure of the family and its sheath-like surrounding social form, the community, we will realize that present conditions are highly chaoticized. The nuclear family of modern Western civilization, and the unusually mobile and inconstant structure of modern communities (into and out of which families move like so many interchangeable parts) is an extremely less formed social life than existed two to three hundred years ago. In the inner cities of the West, with the welfared single parents, individual homeless and drug absorbed sub-cultures, the form, the structure of community and family life has completely disappeared.

This is why when Steiner lectured about Oswald Spengler and Spengler's idea about the falling apart of Western civilization, Spengler was called the "prophet of world chaos". While Steiner disagreed with most of what Spengler thought, he did not disagree with this. This is, in fact, the most important preliminary picture we can have of modern social existence, to recognize the chaotic conditions. Moreover, those forces which have led to this situation are not finished. Unless form giving impulses enter into civilization, barbarism will result.

Yet, not all potential form giving impulses will serve the spiritual needs of modern humanity. The economic life, which sits like a heavy burden on the soul/spiritual existence of Western humanity, if not tempered and restrained, will proceed in a one-sided way to provide a social form in which human kind becomes increasingly the servant of the technological element of modern life (which ought otherwise to serve him). What then of the role of threefolding, of the threefold social order? Is not this just the answer, just the appropriately healthy gentle form giving structure which would then free man to recreate his family and community life? Who can deny it? We know it is so, but is that the only question we need to ask? Obviously not. What we need first is to see deeper, always deeper into the dynamic qualities of modern social existence.

To say that the soul creates the threefold structure of social life in order to see reflected there its own nature is just the beginning of a longer journey. Each aspect of the threefold order has its own moment of historic birth and its own epoch of development. The Spiritual/cultural sphere has its origin in the dim past, and is already well developed in the time of the theocratic forms in ancient Egypt. When this older time gives over to the birth of Western civilization, to the Greek and the Roman epoch, the civic body, or civic order is added to the theocratic. A kind of functional split takes place, with the cultural side no longer totally carrying the burden of social order.

It is important to appreciate certain nuances connected with this change. On the one hand cultural life is able to direct itself more inwardly, having less need to concern itself with those functions that the civic element is now ordering. In the Greek civilization, the cultural life (science, art and religion) experiences a great unfolding, as if forces once devoted to other concerns are now available for purely cultural development. On the other hand the civic form appears at first in a two-fold way; there is the organization of the State at one pole, and the corresponding rights of the citizen at the other. This separation of the cultural and spiritual life from the civic element is not complete in the beginning. In the idea of the divine right of kings, the theocratic principle lives on. Even in the late middle ages, with the co-existence of both ecclesiastical and civil courts, the two spheres remain somewhat intertwined.

This is the crucial picture, to imagine the political-legal life as taking the whole of the period of Western civilization (up to the 17th century) to complete its separation from the cultural sphere. In this we can have a sense of the threefold social organism appearing in human civilization in a dynamic and living way, as a process of unfolding and development. Moreover, this process as it completes itself first creates two poles, the State and the People (citizens) such that a third element ultimately arises between them. Just as the threefold social order exists (in its ideal form) as a tripartite structure modeled on the human soul, with two poles and a middle element, so do each of the spheres of the social order possess tendencies which bring about their own inward threefolding. (This is a complicated problem. I have found it helpful in this regard to study Wolfgang Schad's book, Man and Mammals, as an especially good way to come to a deep appreciation of the threefold nature of man. In this book is described how it is that each of the three functional aspects of man is also itself a threefolding.)

In the process of the thinking which has led to these observations, I spent some time wondering just what was meant by that verse in the Gospel of Christ Jesus which says: "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and unto God what is God's.". Over time I came to realize the following. The State has no existence but what the humans, who conceive it and act it out, make it to be. Unlike sense perceptible objects, the State is a social form entirely built up out of man's ideation and deeds. The principle remains the same, even though in many instances certain individuals or groups are able to form the State according to their particular individual vision. Thus, when Christ admonishes us to "render unto Caesar", we are being directed to understand and appreciate that the State has its being and its nature from what we give to it.Where we withdraw in apathy, or otherwise seek from the State only that which benefits us, we give to the form of the State just such characteristics. For example, as much as we might think that America is what it is out of the Constitution, it is much more important how Her people behave presently. As long as most people "render" unto the State only what they must, and then only for their own purposes, the State in its being and nature can only reveal such characteristics.

But the being of God is not dependent upon man. So, what can it mean to "render unto God"? Yet, just as the State becomes according to what man renders it, so man himself becomes according to what he renders unto God. The human being who is not able to be devoted to God is unable to develop in himself certain qualities of soul that are derived from this act. These acts (rendering unto Caesar and unto God) have a reciprocal relationship. By rendering unto God, by becoming, man augments what he is able to render unto the State. By rendering unto the State, by making it more whole, by making it filled with those forces of soul which it needs in order to set free the cultural life, and to be able to set the appropriate limits on the excesses of the economic life, the State then acts in a way which increases what man is able to render unto God.

In this way we can then come to see that the threefolding of the political-legal life into the two poles, State and People and their mutually created middle (we will come to this next), as that has arisen from the dynamics of the course of Western civilization, has roots and potential even beyond what has previously been thought possible. When the founding fathers of America wrote: "We the People..." and when Lincoln spoke the words: "that a nation of the people, by the people and for the people...", and when President Kennedy said in his inaugural address: "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country", they were all connected to a mutual intuition of this dynamic relationship which inhabits the middle of the three social spheres.  (The ideas in the above two paragraphs are elaborated in much greater detail in Part One of my essay: Waking the Sleeping Giant: the Mission of Anthroposophy in America)

We now come to the summa of this small essay, to the appreciation and understanding of the birth of the middle of the middle sphere, the heart of the heart of the social organism.

The 14th to 17th century represent unique moments in the life of the social organism as that manifested itself over the course of Western civilization. It is in the 14th century that the change of consciousness begins which Owen Barfield (in Saving the Appearances: a Study in Idolatry) characterizes as the leaving behind of "original participation" (being within nature, cosmos and each other to some degree) and the birth of "onlooker consciousness" (I am a self over here, nature, cosmos and others, they are outside, over there). This onlooker separation leads to modern science on the one hand and the deep alienation of modern life on the other. It is this change of consciousness which is ultimately so destructive of the social order. As Western civilization begins to die of this process, its remaining life forces flower (the renaissance), fruit (the enlightenment and the reformation) and seed (the contraction of the whole political wisdom of Western civilization into the forming of the U.S.Constitution).

As an element of these dynamic processes a certain invention occurs which begins to introduce profound changes. This is the invention of the printing press.  Previously, communication (fructifying social intercourse) for most people had to be oral, now it could be written. While this represents a solidification of the word, a crystallization, it also is a necessary process in order that those members of a culture (or polity) who cannot have direct oral communication, may nevertheless come to a shared understanding of the world and of each other.  This means that at the same time as people are becoming more alienated, a counter-pole arises which enables people to find a unity in the shared world view.

We have here two simultaneous processes. One occurring in the outer social fabric, and being a process of disintegration. The other occurring in the soul life and being a process of individuation. These processes are again mutually supportive. Prior to the arrival of "onlooker consciousness" morality was inculcated in humanity from the outside by the coercive effect of the vital social structure. At the same time these ancient social forms now begin to dissolve and lose their ability to form man morally, the soul life acquires new capacities as man gains more self conscious individuality, ultimately to lead to an ability to form independent moral judgments. In a truly miraculous way the death of civilization is also the birth of moral freedom.

Accompanying this miracle is the development of the middle of the social order, what we recognize today as Media. Media first appears as a clear aspect of the political-legal life during the founding days of the America State (form of government). Every town has at least one printer, and thus at least one news sheet. Without these news sheets it is simply not possible for the citizens of the newly forming nation to come to a common view, to equalize their individual perspectives sufficiently. (The Federalist and anti-Federalist papers are a futile act if there is no press to publicize them.) In this way we can come to a functional understanding of Media. It is the knowledge commons (to borrow from Ivan Illich), the place where the dynamic properties of the word enable a polity to form mutual comprehension.

This is how then the dynamics of the polarity, State-People, come to form the needed middle element. Now Media, in the sense conceived here, is not a static thing, but rather an evolving and developing process. The technological achievement of the printing press is just the beginning of a whole series of inventions which ultimately produce radio, television, cable, vcr's, fax machines, computers and so forth. This series is not finished. The interconnecting of home computers reveals that the knowledge commons is about to become an "electronic commons" (Illich's initial formulation).

Consider this picture. The coming into being of print media constitutes a kind of rigidification of the dynamic qualities of the word as those facilitate mutual understanding. As Media further develops, it passes from print form to image form, i.e. television. Television, in that it provides our consciousness with images, puts to sleep that part of our cognitive process which fills out the word with our own imaginations. This further weakens political life, by disabling our thinking faculty at the moment it is most needed to be awake in order to "render" its civic responsibilities. But the technical evolution of Media is not over. Close observation reveals that advertising dominated television is losing its grip, and being replaced with cable services and the possibility of self chosen viewing, the vcr. Parallel to this is the arrival of the home computer, and the various computer networks. Electronic media is becoming less image oriented, and is now interactive; i.e. the word is again becoming significant (please remember this was originally written in 1991, where one could only guess at what was later to unfold).

In California recently, an "electronic commons" (network) was created to allow people to comment on local council meetings. It became enormously popular. So popular that "There would be a near-revolution if we thought about taking it down." (comment of the city manager).

This idea of the importance of Media is nothing new (although few know it as the central element in the threefolding of the social organism). What else have politicians, terrorists, single interest groups, businesses etc. been fighting to control and manipulate? Within Media the People come to common (equalized) self knowledge and mutual understanding. Within Media the idea of the State and of the rights and duties of citizenship come to common form. Media shines light on the activities of the State, and media personalities (with varying degrees of consciousness and moral integrity) believe they act thus for the People. However we turn our thinking, if we remain pictorially descriptive of the dynamics of social life as these actually play themselves out in the political-legal sphere we will come to the perception of the threefoldness of State-Media-People.

In this way then we can circle around to our earlier theme, i.e. a fourth way or mode of understanding and working with the threefold social idea of Rudolf Steiner. Rather then having described the methodology and the epistemological justification for this way of thinking, I have sought instead to demonstrate its efficacy. For those who wish for a name for this process of thinking and observation, (assuming they have not already intuited it) it is called Goetheanism, and can be made the object of study in Steiner's The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World Conception. One can come to a deeper appreciation of this methodology by studying its application to Nature (rather then the social organism) through the study of Ernst Lehr's, Man or Matter.

We have not, of course, at all exhausted the questions which can be asked about the social organism. But by placing before our conscious understanding this evolution of Media as the central functional form in the social order, we have enabled ourselves to return more effectively to the earlier question concerning under what circumstances, and out of what perspective, may we seek to bring into more conscious existence the threefold social order. What soul characteristic (People) may be most appropriate to carry this impulse in the conditions of the present? How do we bring healing to the social order given our present understanding (i.e. is the most essential thing the separation of the cultural life, or is something else preliminary to that)? Or on a more fundamental level, how essential is it that our own thinking have certain characteristics if we wish it to be able to carry particular responsibilities?

Having raised these questions I do want to suggest answers, yet at the same time I do not want to argue them. For me, argument is not a very fruitful process, in that it tends to either derive from, or engender intensified feelings, when to my own experience the feeling life needs a certain degree of cultivated self discipline in order to support the thinking.

A depth study of Steiner and of the progress of civilization reveals that humanity is much in need of a true spiritual conception of the nature of man and his relation to outer nature and to the cosmos. As well, it appears to me, that America stands in a special place with respect to those processes which are to form a new civilization out of the present chaos. Media, if its present condition is clearly understood, is young; i.e. it is still undergoing formative developments, and functions today with a kind of moral or spiritual immaturity. In this sense Media may take one of two different courses of future development. It may become a kind of moon center, rigid, arid, not light originating, but rather only able to reflect those impulses which come to it from the outside. Or, it may become a sun center, a source of warmth and understanding, a medium of creative forces flowing into the social order and carrying both in deed and in word a true image of man as a being of soul and spirit.

I imagine then, Media becoming a sun, a true heart of the heart of the social organism, so that the common understanding of the People will find a renewed vision of the State. In Media a song can yet be heard, the song of the truly free man, the moral man. In this way the rigidification, the mechanization, the image spell-binding of the word will be overcome, and a true understanding given to Western civilization of the Idea of the Threefold Social Organism as a dynamic social form already latent in human social existence in the West.

Recall that when the civic form at the founding of the Greek civilization began to relieve the cultural life of certain responsibilities, the forces formerly devoted to this task became freed, and the cultural life flowered with great creativity. In the present moment the economic life, formerly carried more within the political, is now outside it, in fact infecting the political-legal dynamics and distorting them. There is of course no predicting how events will proceed, yet it seems clear to me that this historic moment is pregnant with certain kinds of potential. Just as there is great risk of a further fall into materialism, so as well there is much possibility for spiritual transformation. If we do not blind ourselves with a kind of threefold dogma (for example, that the first need is to free the spiritual cultural life), but instead truly perceive the actual dynamics. then as far as I am able to hold in pictorial thought, the ripe moment lies in bringing moral trans-formative forces to the thinking active within the Media, to bring a song to life just here in the heart of the heart of the social organism.

In community, Joel A. Wendt, St. John's Tide - midsummer, 1991.

home page -o- next in sequence -o- back to source page -o- e-mail