Shengren – Chapter – Rudolf J. L. Steiner

Rudolf Joseph Lorenz Steiner was an Austrian esoteric and theosopher. An esoteric was someone who has secret knowledge, and a theosopher was a religious philosopher. He was a complicated and erratic man; a psychic, but also an educator and school reformer. Steiner was a founding member of Anthroposophy, a spiritual world view, and a promoter of the “spiritual sciences” in Germany and Europe. A case in point is the ‘Waldorf education’, a so-called humanistic approach in learning with schools all over Europe and the United States. Steiner believed in reincarnation and sagely beings; and he asked himself why Germany had so few spiritual teachers – no Gurus, no Great Masters, no Bodhisattvas? In Steiner’s (limited) world view, sage-ism flourished in the United States and Great Britain, as evident from the rise of the Anglo-American Theosophical Society. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, a former clergyman, had only recently called herself a theosopher – a religious philosopher. A religious philosopher is the opposite of a theologist. A theologist uses the philosophical approach for the study of religion. A theosopher uses the religious approach for the study of philosophy. Neither theologists nor theosophers are sages, because sages are somehow above philosophy and beyond religion. Besides, sages are not freaks: The practitioner Steiner admired other spiritual leaders in England such as Charles Webster Leadbeater, an occultist and early member of the Theosophical Society, Annie Besant, an English-Hindu psychic, and the Hindu writer and self-declared reincarnation of Jesus Christ, Jiddu Krishnamurti.  

When Rudolf Steiner’s relationship with the Theosophical society in New York deteriorated, he founded the German Theosophical Society, and later also founded the Anthroposophische Gesellschaft in Switzerland. Theosophy and Anthroposophy are not related to Oriental though; both are rooted in European spiritual tradition. German spiritual tradition knows die Weisen (sages) only in a folkloristic context, e. g. in paganism, mythology, and Grimm’s’ Fairy Tales. Comparing this to the situation in China, where elderly professors are actually venerated as shengren and take on university chairs, and it becomes obvious that Germany has quite a different take on wise men. Nevertheless, Steiner could have re-vitalized the folkloristic die Weisen and die Weisheit (sages and sagacity) and used them as key terminology for his German Theosophy or German Anthroposophy, but for a pragmatic reason he did not bother: Germany would have laughed and shrugged it off as archaic if Steiner had called himself ein deutscher Weiser (a German sage). Such a use of the word in German language is unheard of. That limitation bewildered him: The Americans called George Washington a sage; and Benjamin Franklin was called a sage, too.[1] And – outside Germany – Goethe was called a sage, by no others than William Wordsworth and Robert Southey. Only Germany itself reduced Goethe to his poetry. The Anglo-Saxons had it better; and T. S. Eliot, in his talk on ‘Goethe as Sage’ could freely say what no German was able to express: “The true sage is rarer than the true poet!” [2]

Steiner was not considered the sage he wanted to be. He was living in the wrong country. He was not a philosopher either; his theosophy and anthroposophy and the Waldorf humanism are considered pedagogy, not a philosophical system. Steiner’s credentials were not university-level professional work. In addition, he wrote about biblical topics, symbolism, Lucifer, Satan, diabolism, alien powers and many other obscurities[3]. German mainstream scholarship called him an “autodidact, with a poor teacher” and a “gypsy-intellectual”[4]. Not uncommon for practitioners at the fringes of society; they were accused of class treason. On a side note, the contempt of a militarized nation-state’s academic class for semi-educated and unconventional educators has been observed in militarized Japan, too. Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, a contemporary of Steiner and the founder of a new Buddhist movement in Japan was ridiculed and prosecuted by the scholarly class.[5] In contrast to Germany and Japan, how very different was the situation in the United States: John Dewey, a maverick educator and the founder of pragmatism, was embraced by the academic elite, and given all the support he needed – despite his modest background. Finally, the legacy of Rudolf Steiner and his ideas was well summarized in an article by Hellmuth Vensky in the German ZeitGeschichte: “Rudolf Steiner – Genius or Nutcase? For the anthroposophist he was the greatest idol of the 20th century, for his critics he was founder of a cult. Steiner’s ideas are [widely] practiced – despite little backing from the scientific community”.[6] Maybe, just may be, if the so-called German “scientific community” did not permanently press those individuals to the fringes of society, such people would not be left to extreme isolation and loneliness and instead could develop their good character and lead the community by example and virtue. And who knows, some of them might be regarded as die Weisen one day. So far, however, there has been none.

[1] De Costa, 1876

[2] in Argyle, 2002, chapter 4

[3] see Steiner biography by Stein, 1980, p. 94 ff.

[4] Tucholsky, 1924

[5]Bethel, 1973

[6] Vensky, 2011