Goethe, painted by Joseph Karl Stieler.
Steiner admired Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), the writer and statesman who was a leading figure in German Romanticism.
The Anthroposophical headquarters, the Goetheanum, is named for Goethe.
Many portions of Steiner's work can be traced back to Goethe, although Steiner
changed much of what he found in Goethe, using it as a springboard for his own conceptions.
Steiner both credited Goethe and argued that focusing on Goethe may have actually retarded his own development.
“My setting forth of Goethe's ideas consisted in the struggle, lasting for years, gradually to achieve a better understanding of him with the help of his own ideas. When I look back upon this endeavour I have to say to myself that I owe to this in large measure the evolution of my spiritual experience of knowledge. This evolution proceeded far more slowly than would have been the case if the Goethe task had not been set by destiny on the pathway of my life. I should then have followed my spiritual experiences and have set these forth as they came to light. I should have broken through into the spiritual world more quickly; but I should have had no inducement to sink down by actual striving into my own inner self.” — Rudolf Steiner, THE STORY OF MY LIFE (Anthroposophical Publishing Co., 1928), pp. 124-125.
Steiner was influenced by Goethe's romanticism, his interest in spirituality, and his emphasis on free, subjective. inward exploration. Here is a reliable, neutral assessment of Goethe's work. It makes no reference to Steiner, but we can find in it elements that attracted Steiner: "Goethe was a contemporary of thinkers — Kant, Herder, Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt — who carried out an intellectual revolution that is at the basis of most modern thinking about religion, art, society, and thought itself ... The age they helped to make was an age dominated by the idea of freedom, of individual self-determination, whether in the intellectual and moral sphere or in practical politics ... If there is a single theme running through Goethe’s huge and varied literary output, it is his reflection on subjectivity — his showing how in ever-changing ways we make our own selves, the world we inhabit, and the meaning of our lives ... The attractive power of his writing, which has not diminished with time, perhaps lies in the extraordinary strength of personality that it radiates, the certainty it conveys of an inexplicit unity underlying all its diversity, and the promise it seems to offer of a disclosure of the secret nature of personality itself." — "Johann Wolfgang von Goethe." ENCYCLOPÆDIA BRITANNICA, Online, 14 Feb. 2010.
Like other Romantics, Goethe insisted on "perceiving" spiritual essences and forces in natural phenomena. This is the nub of "Goethean science," and from the perspective of conventional science it is what makes Goethe's observations (like Steiner's) unreliable — he subjectively created what he professed to see. Steiner understood the distinction, and he sided with the Romantic approach.
“Goethe became for me the Galileo of the organic [world] ... In understanding the inorganic [world], concept is added in series to concept, in order to survey the correlation of forces which bring about an effect in nature. In reference to the organic it is necessary so to allow one concept to grow out of another that in the progressive living metamorphosis of concepts there come to light images of that which appears in nature as a being possessing form. This Goethe strove to do in that he sought to hold fast in his mind an ideal image of a leaf which was not a fixed lifeless concept but such a one as might present itself in the most varied forms. If one permits these forms in the mind to proceed one out of another, one thus constructs the whole plant. One re-creates in the mind in ideal fashion the process whereby nature in actual fashion shapes the plant.” — Rudolf Steiner, THE STORY OF MY LIFE, pp. 77-78.
The objection to this approach is that "re-creation" is actually creation, or imagining, inventing. The "ideal" formed in one's mind is a fiction of one's own invention. But for Steiner and his followers, the imagination leads to truth — it is a form of clairvoyant cognition. "Living" thoughts arise from within (ultimately, from the divine forces within) and they cross the divide between knowledge or science, on the one hand, and morality or religion on the other.
"[I]ntellectual knowledge is unable really to understand the living [i.e., the organic world] ... Nor can the ordinary scientific mentality come to anything that could be called scientific morality for lack of knowledge of the true nature of the world and the spiritual beings that created it ... The great pioneer in this kind of thinking was Goethe, though it was Steiner who was the man most responsible for making explicit what was only implict in Goethe's own numerous writings on scientific subjects." — Stewart C. Easton, MAN AND THE WORLD IN THE LIGHT OF ANTHROPOSOPHY (Anthroposophic Press, 1989), pp. 268-269. In fact, the kind of thinking described here is very ancient; by no means did it begin with Goethe or Steiner — the blurring of distinctions between knowledge, wishes, faith, and morality have been with mankind from the beginning (and may in fact be among the things we need to work past). Both scientists and Christians would find much to reject in Easton's words (note the polytheistic account of Creation), but Easton's statement of Steiner's perspective is accurate.
"What Steiner and his fellow Idealists are saying is that you would not even have an outside world unless you first had something inside. This is a variation on Goethe's notion of objective imagination, the idea that truth is not something out there, waiting to make a mark on our virgin minds: it's a product of the harmonious meeting between out there and in here." — Gary Lachman, RUDOLF STEINER (Jeremy P. Tarcher, 2007), p. 95. Lachman's formulation is awfully loose, but like Easton's it is reasonably true to the spirit of Steiner's work. Without going into the many faults in such work, we might just note in passing that it utterly violates basic rules of science and, indeed, rationality.
Here is Steiner describing the sort of thinking we're considering:
“[I]t was my constant endeavour in the statement of my thoughts to keep my inner experience fully awake within the very thoughts. This gives to thoughts the mystical character of inner perception, but makes the perception like the perception of the outer physical world. If one forces oneself through to such an inner experience, then one no longer finds any contradiction between knowledge of nature and knowledge of spirit. It becomes clear to one that the second is only a metamorphosed continuation of the first.” — Rudolf Steiner, THE STORY OF MY LIFE, p. 128.
Such "inner perception" produces visions such as this:
“[T]here appeared before my soul the soul of Nietzsche, hovering above his head, boundless in its spiritual light; surrendered wholly to the spiritual worlds, longing after its environment but failing to discover it; and yet chained to the body, which would have to do with the soul only so long as the soul longed for this present world. Nietzsche's soul was still there, but only from without could it hold to the body, that body which so long as the soul remained within it had offered resistance to the full unfolding of its light.” — THE STORY OF MY LIFE, p. 181.
The debate between Anthroposophists and their critics may be boiled down to this image. Is it a true vision or just a pretty imagining? Steiner, influenced in part by Goethe, insisted that such "perceptions" are true.
"There are no hard and fast distinctions in Anthroposophical life. The many applications [of Steiner's teachings] are also, if fully carried out, forms of meditation which lead to transcendence in a more spiritual individuality. Steiner was very strongly influenced by Goethe. Though he interpreted his many-sidedness from a highly spiritual point of view, Steiner agreed with Goethe's belief in the redeeming sanity of action." — Geoffrey Ahern, SUN AT MIDNIGHT (James Clarke & Co., 2009), p. 86.
We can all agree on the need for sanity, I hope. The question is whether we can find it in thinking such as Steiner's or Goethe's (as interpreted by Steiner). Goethe had a saving sense of limitation; Steiner claimed a far more untrammeled consciousness.
"I am most vividly conscious that what I have undertaken to do far exceeds any human powers and their duration on earth." — Goethe, quoted in GREAT WRITING OF GOETHE (Meridian, 1977), p. 34 - edited by Stephen Spender.
"Rudolf Steiner thought that Goethe hesitated before the supreme reality of spirit. Anthroposophists think that their founder's vision completes the task Goethe began." — Geoffrey Ahern, SUN AT MIDNIGHT, p. 122.
I think most people can feel the appeal of Steiner's effort. Transcendence, knowledge of spirit, union with the divine — we would all like these things. But does Steiner, in fact, offer them? Bear in mind that his "inner perception," which he came to call "exact clairvoyance," produced all the doctrines detailed here at Waldorf Watch: our evolution on Old Saturn, Old Sun, etc.; our three invisible bodies; Lucifer, Ahriman, Sorat, goblins, demons in human form; secret brotherhoods; racial hierarchies — and on and on. Is this sanity?
Perhaps Goethe's greatest work is his two-part play, FAUST. It is based on the legend of a German necromancer who sought to attain knowledge and power by making a pact with the Devil. "The supreme work of Goethe’s later years, FAUST is sometimes considered Germany’s greatest contribution to world literature. Part I sets out the magician Faust’s despair, his pact with Mephistopheles, and his love for Gretchen. Part II covers Faust’s life at court, the wooing and winning of Helen of Troy, and his purification and salvation." — "Faust." ENCYCLOPÆDIA BRITANNICA, Online, 20 Aug. 2013.
The play is often staged at the Goetheanum, and excerpts are frequently assigned as reading for Waldorf students.
In Anthroposophical interpretation, the story of Faust becomes in effect a parable of mankind's search for the salvation available through Anthroposophy. Faust attempted to gain knowledge and power in a false manner, sinking to the level of materialism. Only by realizing that above the physical plane there is a soul plane, and above that a spirit plane, can Faust truly come to understand himself and human destiny under the benevolent guidance of the gods. Faust must learn, in effect, that Rudolf Steiner's teachings are true, including his teachings about reincarnation.
"Faust [penetrates] the spiritual world ... But he is not ripe enough to unite this spirit [Helena - Helen of Troy] with his own soul. Hence the scene where desire stirs in Faust, where he wishes to embrace the archetype of Helena with sensual passion. He is therefore thrust back. That is the fate of every one who seeks to approach the Spiritual World harboring personal, egotistical feelings; he is repelled like Faust. He must first mature; must learn the real relationship between the three members of man's nature: the immortal spirit which goes on from life to life, from incarnation to incarnation; the body, commencing and ending its existence between birth and death, and the soul between the two of them. Body, soul and spirit — how they unite, how they mutually react — that is the lesson Faust must learn. The archetype of Helena, the immortal, the eternal, that passes from life to life, from one incarnation to the other, Faust has already tried to find, what was then immature. Now he is to become ripe so that he is worthy to truly penetrate into the spirit realm. For this purpose he had to learn that this immortality comes to man only when he can be re-embodied repeatedly within physical existence — have new lives extending from birth to death. Therefore must Goethe show how the soul lives between spirit and body, how the soul is placed between the immortal spirit and the body which exists only between birth and death. The second part of Faust shows us this.
"Goethe conceals the soul in that wonderful form about which investigators of his Faust have little to say, while spiritual investigators, who are experienced, perceived therein the archetype of the soul. That form is nothing else than the Homunculus — the little man. It is a picture of the human soul. And what has this soul to do? It is the mediator between body and spirit; it must attract all the elements of the body out of all the kingdoms of nature in order to ally itself with them. Only then can it become united with the immortal spirit. In that way we can see how Faust is led by the Homunculus to the classical Walpurgisnight as far as the natural philosophers Anaxagoras and Thales who have investigated the origin of nature and life.
"And there is given that true teaching of evolution which says, that's not only is the animal at the foundation of man's development with a soul-element that gathers together the elements of nature and with them gradually commences to build. Hence Homunculus receives the counsel: You must begin with the lowest kingdom and rise higher and higher. The human soul is, in the first place, sent to the mineral kingdom. There man is informed that he has to pass through the vegetable kingdom: There the soul gathers all the natural elements so as to develop further. It is expressly said: “and up to man thou hast sufficient time.” Dare we see approaching the spirit of love, Eros, after the soul has formed the body from out of the kingdoms of nature. They are the sole unites with the spirit. Body, soul and spirit are united. That which is the sole of the Homunculus, with its newly organized body, comes into union with the spirit of Helena who now, in the third act of the second part, can appear to us, incarnate. The teaching of reincarnation we see artistically and practically interspersed in the second part of Faust. One cannot unite with Helena by approaching her with stormy passion, but must experience the mysteries of existence in reality — pass through rebirth." — Rudolf Steiner, "Goethe's Faust from the Point of View of Spiritual Science" (transcript, Los Angeles Steiner Library), GA 272.
Illustration accompanying GOETHE'S SECRET REVELATION
"[O]ut of what Goethe wrote in order that his Faust Mystery should appear in its right light there sounds an echo of the Book of Job, ‘Dost thou know my servant Job?’
"Then Goethe's fine, full life continued further, going ever deeper into the human existence of which the world to-day knows so little. And having brought to expression in many different ways what he had experienced in his soul, in 1824 he looked back on his whole life, and once more sat down and described Faust's passage through the great world, but in such a way that the second part is a complete character picture of the inner human development of the soul.
"Looking back to the first part we can see how completely true to life and to the reality of life is this description of a striving soul. Everything that meets us in the first part, especially in the beginning, is full of deep truths regarding nature, but much in it resembles a kind of theory of art — as if someone spoke of things that his soul had not yet fully experienced.
"And the second part: Here everything is the inward experience of his own soul. Here are the highest experiences of a spiritual kind by means of which man climbs the stages of existence, passes through the physical world and penetrates to the place where the human soul is united with the spirituality of the world, dissolves together with it and knows wherein it finds peace and at the same time that which gives freedom, dignity and self-dependence. All this is given in the second part of Faust as his own inner experience. The time will come when Goethe's Faust will be understood in quite another way from what it is to-day, when people will understand what Goethe wished to say when he said to Eckermann on 29th Jan., 1827: ‘All in Faust is of the senses, material, thought out in terms of the theatre to please everyone and I wished for nothing more than that. If the crowd of onlookers takes pleasure in its appearance, the higher meaning will not escape the observation of the initiated.’
"Though the first part in many ways appears to be theoretical and not worked down into life, the second part is one of the most realistic of those pieces of world literature which go most deeply into reality; for everything in the second part of Faust is experienced, though not with the physical eye, because to have such experiences, spiritual eyes and spiritual ears are necessary. It is for that reason that the second part of Faust has been so little understood. People merely saw symbols and allegories in what is for the spiritual inquirer, who can experience it in the spiritual worlds, something far more true and real than anything that can be seen with the outer physical eyes or heard with the outer physical ears." — Rudolf Steiner, GOETHE'S SECRET REVELATION (Trismegistus Press, 1980) lecture 3, GA 57.
— Compilation and commentary by Roger Rawlings