I’ve had a copy of Colin Wilson’s little book on Rudolf Steiner sitting in one of my bookcases for over a year now, so I thought it might be a good time to blow off the dust and look inside. In his early works, Wilson didn’t really care for Steiner. He didn’t write anything about him ( that I know of ) until the 1980s, long after he had developed his “New Existentialism.” He does admit finding him “an interesting figure.”1 While working on his book, Psychic Detectives (published in 1984), Wilson began reading Steiner’s early works in order to complete a section on the Akashic Records. Much to his astonishment, he found that Steiner “was a philosopher and cultural historian of considerable brilliance.”2 Prior to this, Wilson felt that Steiner was a charlatan and “intellectual opportunist, who patched together his own religious system from attractive bits and pieces of other people’s ideas.”3 So, this was quite a turnaround in Wilson’s opinion of Steiner. He attributes his difficult prose to Steiner’s voluminous reading and editing of Goethe’s scientific works, which he accomplished in his twenties. Apparently, Goethe’s style was also “disagreeably stiff and stilted.”4
Wilson was impressed that Steiner was so adamantly opposed to materialism.
. . . he was revolted by the materialistic world-picture of modern science. He wanted to show that it simply wouldn’t hold water–that total material fails to account for the complexities of the universe and of human existence. But he was not content with denouncing it on vaguely poetic or artistic grounds. He wanted to get an intellectual crowbar underneath it and overturn it from the foundations.5
After being so impressed with Steiner’s early works and ideas, Wilson said he felt somewhat guilty for believing Steiner to be a fraud a few years earlier. His section on the Akashic Records proved to be so long, he had to cut large swaths of Steiner-related material from Psychic Detectives. These several thousand words became the foundation for the current volume we are looking into.
Wilson read Steiner’s autobiography, which he was still writing during the last months of his life. Increasingly ill, he died on March 30, 1925 at the age of sixty-four. He had only come to about 1907 in his life’s story.
Wilson asks, “What then went wrong?–for there is no doubt in my mind something did go wrong . . .”6 He offers three main reasons for Steiner’s untimely death:
- His association with Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society. Wilson sees Steiner’s decision to become the Society’s representative in Germany as his first major mistake. Having already published major works of philosophy, “he had nothing whatever to gain from association with people who were regarded as occultist cranks. . .7
- Steiner attained celebrity status in the age when celebrities were becoming all the rage. “He became a celebrity in the age of Charlie Chaplin. His biographer, Guenther Wachsmuth, mentions that, in the early days, Steiner tried to give personal help and advice to as many of his followers as possible, but that this became impossible as his following swelled.”8
- As a result of being a celebrity, Steiner became the target of people who harbored hostility towards him. Several attempts were made to attack him in hotels, and one even set fire to the first Goetheanum, the education center Steiner designed for students of Anthroposophy.
The embarkation point for a philosophical study of Rudolf Steiner, according to Wilson, is “the belief that ‘behind’ this material world, revealed by our senses, there is a supersensible or spiritual world.”9 Now, this idea can be taken a few different ways. In my own interpretation, I would say that this “supersensible” world is actually our world, except that there are facets of this world one cannot experience via the normal, everyday physical senses. I’m not sure yet if Steiner would agree with me. Another way to see this would be to say there is a totally separate world, apart from our world, that composes the “spiritual world.”
One important point Wilson reminds us of is that “Steiner’s supersensory perception” should not be confused with “mediumship”10, as popularized in the spiritualism movement of his day. Wilson says, “Steiner was deeply suspicious of spiritualism.”11 Steiner felt there was much foolishness going on in the movement, which had nothing to do with what he was trying to teach.
There are three stages to access Steiner’s supersensory world: Thought (Imagination), Inspiration, and Intuition. The most important of these is Thought.
Thought, or Imagination, “is the most important because it is the bridge between our ordinary, muddled state of everyday consciousness and the states of ‘higher knowledge’ . . . Once this has been grasped, the reader has passed through the doorway into the world of Steiner’s own vision of human evolution.”12
In the next article, I will describe Wilson’s thought on Rudolf Steiner’s conception of this crucial first step beyond the senses. I suspect this will include, perhaps, a comparison to Husserl and his transcendental reduction, but we will see. I haven’t read ahead yet.
Wilson, Colin. Rudolf Steiner: The Man and his Vision. Aeon: London, 2005.
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