Religion and Philosophy

Scientific Spirituality and Ethical Individualism: The Legacy of Rudolf Steiner

By Keith Preston May 2, 2023

Scientific Spirituality and Ethical Individualism

The human existential crisis that emerged, during the past two centuries, as one of the fundamental dilemmas of modernity has, among its primary roots, a consequential effect of the unmooring of the human species from its cultural and spiritual roots. A gift of the Enlightenment was the liberation of human thought from unreason and superstition, and from the yoke of clerical tyrants. A parallel gift was the cultivation of the scientific paradigm of modernity, which has led to fascinating new discoveries and innovations in human life and thought. However, the price of the freedom and invention that has been among the defining characteristics of modernity has been the loss of both identity and mystification. The fears of a range of thinkers who emerged during the nineteenth century that modern civilization would produce a collective of mediocrities whose only motivations were consumption and base pleasures has to a large degree come into being. Similarly, the fears of past thinkers that a civilization build on rationality and technology would deprive humanity of any sort of moral and spiritual essence were not wholly unfounded as well.

A core existential question for the twenty-first century involves the degree to which science can be reconciled with spirituality, or whether individuality can be reconciled with ethical values. A common refrain that is characteristic of both reactionaries and postmodernists is to answer each of these questions with a resoundingly negative emphasis. It is wisely thought by contemporary reactionaries that the era of Nietzsche’s “last man” has finally arrived, and such lamentations are happily affirmed by postmodernists who insist on the relativity of truth and justice while simultaneously insisting, paradoxically, upon their own moral superiority. Yet the human psyche cannot function without some kind of ordering principle. For this reason, ideologies have largely assumed the role of religions in the modern world, as earlier thinkers predicted they would, and moral crusades have simply replaced the religious crusades of the past.

Nowhere are such tendencies more evident that among the mainstream clergy of the developed world, who are consistently eager to affirm whatever newly discovered principle of “social justice” happens to be conjured by the largely and often zealously secular academics and scientists of the era. The typical and often repeated narrative will be one that follows a trajectory that begins with the recognition of some previously unforeseen bigotry or out-group prejudice by the high priests of academia, science, media, and entertainment, with the conventional clergy eagerly falling in line to affirm the latest edicts of their priestly overlords in the secular institutional realm. Traditional religion is dismissed as outmoded superstition and an obstacle to progress but, as Malcolm Muggeridge pointed out, religion has at the same time been reinvented as a tool utilized by the secular crusaders of the era.

The basis of social ethics has largely been reinvented by modern societies with the new religion being rooted in the principles of scientism, environmentalism, technology, egalitarianism, therapy, and a preoccupation with safety and security whose primary effects have been deracination, emasculation, and psychological crippling. No evidence exists that such an ethical or existential framework has led to an increase in human happiness. In the year 2020 alone, approximately 83,000 Americans died of self-inflicted drug overdoses. Nor has the ethos of modernity necessarily led to a greater level of peace. Researchers of modern warfare have estimated that the United States, the nation which epitomizes the values of modernity as much as any other, has alone been responsible for as many as 20 million deaths worldwide as a result of wars, coups, and counterinsurgency campaigns. Whatever the limitations of the paradigms of antiquity or the medieval era, it is clear that modernity has demonstrated limitations of its own.

The thought of Rudolf Steiner represented an effort to address some of these limitations in a constructive way. While modern thought may have undermined the paradigm represented by the traditional dualistic dichotomy of “good and evil,” a new dualism has subsequently emerged in its place in the form of the dichotomy of “progressive and reactionary.” Consequently, to be “good” in the eyes of modern secular priests and their faithful parishioners is to be “progressive” and to be “evil” is to be “reactionary.” Illiberal ideas thought to represent, for example, “racism” and “sexism” are attacked with a vehemence that might have been reserved for heresy, blasphemy, apostasy, and witchcraft in past times. The emergence of the coronavirus pandemic two decades into the twenty-first century likewise provided the secular priesthood, often dressed in white coats rather than white collars, with the opportunity to issue edicts of their own proclaiming correct doctrine allegedly rooted in the principles of “science” which assumes the role of divine revelation in the new religion. Those who dared to defy the edicts of the clerics of “public health” began to assume the role of sinners and moral reprobates in the eyes of the faithful.

The work of Steiner is important because he was one of the early thinkers that would attempt to separate science from scientism, a task that would later be embraced by a range of other thinkers, including liberals like Max Weber and even certain Marxist thinkers associated with the Frankfurt School. Steiner is most well-known for his interest in mysticism, and many of his efforts to reinterpret traditional religious archetypes as having a deeper meaning beyond that of their outward mythological representations, with the latter being embraced by many traditionalists but dismissed merely as primitive superstition by modern skeptics and rationalists. Steiner was fundamentally favorable toward science, but in a way that understood the essence of science as being a process of discovery, and not as a teleology toward a final end. Steiner postulated that a scientific framework could indeed be inclusive of spiritual experience, and that scientific methodology likewise required the ongoing shift in one’s frame of reference.

The above observation is particularly relevant in an era when challenges to scientific, academic, or intellectual orthodoxy are dismissed not as merely wrong, counterfactual, or disagreeable, but as “misinformation” tantamount to heresy. In some modern “democratic” countries, for example, challenging the consensus of historians regarding particular historical events or the consensus of scientists concerning specific scientific claims is considered to be “denialism” which requires repression. Similarly, the expression of opinions contradicting liberal orthodoxy are merely dismissed as “hate” and therefore in no need of debate, rebuttal, or refutation, but of suppression. That such an intellectual framework merely creates a new set of pieties, orthodoxies, and contravening heresies should be obvious enough to an objective observer. However, Steiner postulated that there are no inherent limits to human knowledge, a concept which implies there are no rightful limits to human inquiry as inquiry is essential to knowledge.

A core theme that runs through much of Steiner’s work involves the individualized subjectivity of human experience. An application of such an insight allows one to, for instance, gain new understanding into the nature of human religious and spiritual endeavors. One may be tempted to argue that it ultimately does not matter whether the Buddha or the Christ are “real” in an objective, empirical sense as much as whether the experience of such archetypes is “real” on a subjective level for those having such an experience. Steiner’s thought concerning the subjectivity of experience, and the relationship of subjectivity to “objective” science, in many ways resembles that of William James, an American contemporary of Steiner who in his “Varieties of Religious Experience” postulated that the “reality” of religious experience was its subjective meaning to the one undergoing the experience, a theme that would be revisited by Carl Jung decades later.

Steiner’s interest in mysticism and spirituality led to his interest in theosophy, one of the ways in which traditional religion was experiencing a reinterpretation in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and this interest led to Steiner’s own unique philosophy of “Anthroposophy.” While Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was arguably the foremost intellectual influence on Steiner, it is clear that much of Steiner’s work, particularly his embrace of subjectivity, was influenced by the thought of Nietzsche as well. Indeed, Steiner was once invited by Elizabeth Forster-Nietzsche to assist in the collection of the philosopher’s works. While he declined the offer, in all probability due to Elizabeth’s frequently unsavory inclinations, Steiner was afforded the opportunity to visit with Friedrich Nietzsche during the time of the German philosopher’s invalid status. As Steiner later recalled:

“My first acquaintance with Nietzsche’s writings belongs to the year 1889. Previous to that I had never read a line of his. Upon the substance of my ideas as these find expression in The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity, Nietzsche’s thought had not the least influence….Nietzsche’s ideas of the ‘eternal recurrence’ and of ‘Übermensch’ remained long in my mind. For in these was reflected that which a personality must feel concerning the evolution and essential being of humanity when this personality is kept back from grasping the spiritual world by the restricted thought in the philosophy of nature characterizing the end of the 19th century….What attracted me particularly was that one could read Nietzsche without coming upon anything which strove to make the reader a ‘dependent’ of Nietzsche’s.”

Steiner’s interest in philosophy, religion, and spirituality led him to develop an interest in ethics, culture, education, and politics. He became a proponent of “ethical individualism,” a conceptual framework which insisted that ethical values must be rooted in the actions and aspirations of the individual in order to be truly meaningful. The ethical framework outlined by Steiner subsequently exercised an influence on Martin Buber’s formulation of “I and Thou” which understood ethical expression within a relational context. Steiner articulated a high level of respect for organic and traditional cultures, and the sense of identity and belonging that these provided to individuals. However, he did not believe that the individual’s morality or will should be bound by such attachments. Ethical individualism implied the legitimacy of the individual’s pursuit of their own path apart from tribal affiliations, but in a way that allowed for the flourishing of a multiplicity of organic tribal identities. He once quipped: “To be free is to be capable of thinking one’s own thoughts – not the thoughts merely of the body, or of society, but thoughts generated by one’s deepest, most original, most essential and spiritual self, one’s individuality.”

Yet Steiner was not a proponent of what would today be called “essentialism.” Instead, the principles of ethical individualism led Steiner to embrace the flexibility of conceptions of “race, folk, ethnicity and gender,” in ways that partially resemble the notions of identity as a personalized social construct articulated by contemporary postmodernists. Steiner suggested innovations in the realm of education that continue to be influential, mostly notably in the form of the Steiner-Waldorf schools developed for the partial purpose of applying his educational theories. Thousands of such schools continue to exist in dozens of countries. Following the calamitous events of World War One, Steiner expressed skepticism of Woodrow Wilson’s desire to dismantle multi-national Eurasian empires into ethnically homogeneous nation-states. As an alternative, Steiner favored a system of cultural self-determination for all social groups in ways that rejected the embrace of the state as an expression of national or cultural identity. Steiner’s thoughts on this question were similar to those of the German anarchist Gustav Landauer’s conception of “folkish anarchism.” Steiner was likewise a staunch opponent of racial prejudice even while expressing skepticism of cosmopolitan universalism, believing that every ethno-culture possessed an intrinsic value and uniqueness. Steiner similarly opposed anti-Semitism while expressing parallel opposition to the chauvinism inherent in the Zionist ideology. For these reasons, Steiner’s work was vociferously attacked by the German National Socialists, whose emergence overlapped with the last few years of Steiner’s life.

A contextualization of Steiner’s thought reveals much of value that can be offered to the contemporary world as a means of solving its various existential and political crises. Steiner offers an approach to religion, spirituality, and mysticism that does not require a repudiation of the principles of the scientific method, while at the same time offering a safeguard against modern secular Pharisees and the priesthood of scientism. Steiner’s work embraces individualism and liberates the individual from the potential chains of identitarianism without requiring the relinquishing of identity. Steiner’s approach to culture recognizes the value of cultural pluralism and organic cultural hybridization while providing an alternative to faux “multiculturalism” promulgated by the overlords of globalized technocratic monoculture. The thought of Steiner provides a body of work that includes many valuable ideas and tools that can be harvested and planted as part of the task of addressing the dilemmas presented by late modernity.

3 replies »

  1. The scientific side of spirituality and religion, in modern terms, it’s mostly in brain science and anthropology. Certain people are not receptive to certain kinds of states, or have am emotional neediness for belonging, certainty, purpose (which I find physically repulsive) such that it’s more important to them to believe they’ve found it than to actually understand how anything works. Different religions are often maladaptive because the psychological technology of prayer, meditation, theological rationalization, etc. which works for some people is often ineffective for persons with different neurological and psychological propensities. For certain autistic types of atheist physicalists, this is all just nonsense and I’d rather just take mescaline, but even so I won’t be convinced it was fucking aliens or interdimensional Jewish storm tyrants. Spirituality, so called, is basically just hypnotizing yourself to get high and be hyper emotional. It’s kind of obsolete technology.

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