Book Review - Rudolf Steiner An Introduction to His Life and Work

Cultic Studies Review, 8, (1), 2009

Rudolf Steiner: An Introduction to His Life and Work

Gary Lachman

New York, NY: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin. 2007. ISBN 10: 1585425435; ISBN 13: 978-1-58542-543-3 (paperback), $16.95 ($11.53 278 pages.

Reviewed by Joseph P. Szimhart

Gary Lachman has written many books, including one about his life in rock-‘n-roll (as Gary Valentine), and others about his views on the evolution of consciousness. As a young poet/musician, he helped form the punk rock band Blondie, as their bass player. In the mid-1970s, prior to its meteoric success, the band let him go, not happy with his stage antics. He later studied philosophy and became a journalist. His experience with mysticism and the New Age included several years pursuing the Fourth Way teachings of Gurdjieff.

Rudolf Steiner is Lachman’s latest in a series of books about significant occultists and gurus who influence our modern era (two of them biographies about P.D.Ouspensky and Emmanuel Swedenborg). In this volume, Lachman leans toward an apologetic view of Rudolf Steiner the man, if not of everything he taught.

Born in the region of the Austro-Hungarian border (Kraljevic was part of Hungary at the time), Steiner lived from 1871 to 1925. From an early age, he had an odd personality. Lachman cites English psychiatrist Anthony Storr, who called Steiner “schizotypal,” or someone who has some characteristics of schizophrenia yet functions adequately in society.[1] Steiner was preoccupied as a youth with a vivid inner vision, a trait he retained till he died. As a youth, he reported seeing the spirits of two dead family members. Those transcendent events continued to inform all his philosophy regarding his awareness of “supersensible beings” and the occulted world. Steiner believed that a science of spirituality exists. His goal was to unveil the hidden realms and to create a way for his followers to commune within them.

Steiner seemed to have a reading disability until the age of 10; but when he needed to read in later life, he did rather well and at times excelled with his studies. Lachman calls Steiner a genius. The second defining moment in Steiner’s life (after that of seeing dead people) occurred when he discovered geometry. Through those structural principles he saw meaning, or a bridge between the outer world and that which underlay his psychic reality. Without grasping geometry as his avenue to “the world” at large, Steiner might have led a far less remarkable life. Nevertheless, his Platonic and Gnostic leanings dominated his life’s work and relationships. Steiner married twice, had no children, and, Lachman surmises, may have remained virgin. There is no evidence from Steiner or his female partners that he ever engaged in intercourse. And his writings have a distinctive asexual quality.

This odd man was attracted to the esoteric ideas of Goethe, the theosophy of Jacob Boehme, and to some extent the occultism of Madame Blavatsky. A major breakthrough in his mystical career occurred when a Goethe center hired him to edit Goethe’s obscure and generally ignored scientific speculations. Goethe was a hero for Steiner. Lachman spends an entire chapter telling the story of Steiner’s alliance with Goethe’s aesthetics and idealism. He writes how Steiner strove to defeat the rising materialism of the age and to refute his “nemesis” Kant, who saw limits to human perception and knowledge. Steiner preferred the idealism of Fichte and the romanticism of Nietzsche. Steiner believed there were no limits to human cognition about the world, hidden or not, and he came to believe in himself as the prophet of humanity’s psychic evolution.

Theosophy, for all its vagaries, was the most important spiritual movement among the avant-garde of Steiner’s day. He would become the head of the German section of the Theosophical Society for some years, until 1913. Before that achievement, Steiner’s formative period included significant time spent in Vienna. I enjoyed Chapter Three, “At the Megalomania Café,” in Lachman’s narrative because it captures the brooding pessimism as well as the grandiosity of ideas in ferment at the time. Megalomania Café (Cafe Groessenwahn) was the popular nick-name for the Griensteidl café because of its primarily artistic clientele that for a time included Steiner. At age 18, Steiner commuted by train to study in Vienna before he moved there. On that train, Steiner befriended a middle-aged herbalist that he revered as a kind of seer like himself. This eccentric man, Felix Koguzki, may have been the inspiration for someone Steiner would later allude to as “the Master M,” who Steiner claimed guided him to the herbalist. Hidden masters were in the air, so to speak, since Blavatsky’s revelations in the late 1800s, with her revalorization of Rosicrucianism, an occult movement purportedly founded by the hidden master Christian Rosencreutz in the 1600s.

Steiner retained a Christocentric form of Theosophy that put him at odds with the Orientalism of the Blavatsky-Besant lodges. When the latter chose the young Indian boy J. Krishnamurti in 1913 as the embodiment of a messiah called World Teacher, Steiner objected. He severed relations with Theosophy and changed his German section to the Anthroposophical Society. Anthroposophy flourished under Steiner’s management, eventually attracting thousands of supportive devotees worldwide. Through Anthroposophy Steiner established himself as a notable lecturer and innovator in art (Eurythmy in dance and poetry, Luminism in watercolor, and Expressionist architecture), education (Waldorf Schools), biodynamic farming, and therapeutic care for handicapped folks (Camphill schools). Although all of his innovations sustain a following to this day, they also attract serious criticism from scientists, educators, and former followers.

If there is a weakness in Lachman’s book, it is its lack of evidence against Steiner’s ideas. You will get the impression from the final chapter that Steiner is an overlooked prophet whose relevance is yet to be discovered. Lachman is impressed with a core idea from Steiner’s book Theosophy, that man is an “I” with a universal consciousness that has the potential to “see not only what proceeds on his own planet, but in the whole cosmos” (p.142). Steiner believed that this would happen through man’s use of a supersensible intuition, or what Goethe called “active imagination.” Steiner’s intuition was not always profound. As Lachman points out, Steiner made many strange claims, such as the Christ sent Buddha to convert all beings on Mars. Despite Steiner’s focus on occult sciences, his private religion included elements of Catholicism. For example, every day at three o’clock Steiner would recite the Lord’s Prayer in Latin.

Anyone not familiar with Steiner will get a solid general view of this complex man and his extraordinary life from Lachman’s book. For that reason, I recommend it as an informative and entertaining introduction to Steiner, despite a few reservations. Beyond my concerns personally as someone not sympathetic to Steiner’s occultism are some subtle errors in the book. For example, Lachman writes on page 123 about an esoteric group in Berlin, the Giordano Bruno Bund, to which Steiner lectured around 1900. Lachman states that the Bund was “named after the Renaissance mage burned at the stake by the Church for his advocacy of the Copernican model of the solar system.” Tragically, Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for heresy, divination, magic, and alleged immoral behavior. Although Bruno’s views on Copernicus were controversial, there was no official Church policy on Copernicus and his revolutionary if flawed science at the time. Also, Lachman fails to suggest that Steiner’s insistence that children not be taught to read till age 7 or so is more projection based on his own childhood experience than good science.

The book, however, has a good index and informative notes, all well worth reading. If nothing else, Lachman truly did his homework on this man, citing dozens of sources as well as Steiner’s own writings.

[1] Anthony Storr (1920-2001) wrote Feet of Clay: Saints, Sinners, and Madmen (1997)