This mild, gentle, good, kindly man
The most enigmatic figure to emerge from the ‘occult revival’ of the early 20th century was also the most successful: the Austrian ‘spiritual scientist’ Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925). Although many of his contemporaries and near-contemporaries were outwardly more eccentric – think of Madame Blavatsky, the founder of Theosophy, or of the inimitable Gurdjieff, or the scandalous ‘magician’ Aleister Crowley – it’s precisely Steiner’s sobriety that is so striking, even making him seem out of place in the often flamboyant world of the esoteric.
We generally associate ideas of the occult, higher consciousness and spiritual worlds with exotic, extraordinary characters with something of the trickster about them. Blavatsky, Gurdjieff and Crowley would certainly fall into this category. Steiner, though, was precisely the opposite. Standing at the lectern with his pince-nez in hand, he projected an image of irreproachable rectitude. Steiner was earnestness incarnate, his one gesture of bohemian extravagance the flowing bow ties he was fond of wearing, a remnant of his early student days. Where Blavatsky, Gurdjieff and Crowley each took pains to present a formidable self-image, there was something simple and peasant-like about Steiner. Combined with this wholesomeness was an encyclopædic erudition; if we were to use an ‘archetype’ to describe Steiner, it would have to be that of ‘the professor’ – or, more precisely, the Doctor, as he was known by those around him.
Commenting on her magnum opus, The Secret Doctrine, Madame Blavatsky once remarked that she “wrote, wrote, wrote,” like the Wandering Jew “walks, walks, walks”. Steiner, too, wrote a great deal, but his main mode of disseminating his ideas was lecturing, and in the years between 1900 and 1925 he lectured, lectured, lectured, delivering more than 6,000 talks across Europe.
This humble, self-effacing character became one of the most influential – and simultaneously vilified – forces in the spiritual and cultural life of early 20th-century Europe. And his ideas are still powerfully influential today. Steiner’s efforts have produced remarkably concrete results. Since his death, more than 1,000 schools around the world work with Steiner’s pedagogical principles, not to mention the many “special needs” schools, working along lines developed by Steiner more than a century ago. There are also the hundreds of ‘bio-dynamic’ farms, employing Steiner’s agricultural insights, developed decades in advance of our interest in ecology and organic foods. The practical application of Steiner’s ideas have also informed very successful avenues in holistic healthcare, the arts, architecture, economics, religion and other areas.
So, given these achievements in the ‘real world’, which certainly exceed those of other ‘esoteric teachers’, why isn’t Steiner better known? You would reasonably expect the average educated person to have some idea of who, say, Jung is, or Krishnamurti, or the Dalai Lama; possibly even Blavatsky, Gurdjieff and Crowley.
He remains something of a mystery, a name associated with a handful of different disciplines and endeavours, but not solidly linked to any one thing. He remains, as one of his most eloquent apologists, Owen Barfield, called him, “the best kept secret of the 20th century.” It’s certainly time that he was better known.
In the end, it’s difficult to give an exact assessment of a man whose work combines cogent criticisms of Kant with accounts of life in Atlantis. But this “mild, gentle, good, kindly man”, whose achievement in “humanitarian terms is remarkable and enduring” – as the psychiatrist Anthony Storr wrote of Steiner in his 1996 study of gurus, Feet of Clay – remains, for devotee and non-initiate alike, something of an enigma.