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Anthroposophy and the Social Question

On-line since: 10th July, 2009

Everyone who looks with open eyes at the world around him today sees the so-called “Social Question” looming at every turn. No one who takes life seriously can avoid forming ideas of some kind about this question and all that is involved with it. And what could seem more obvious than that a mode of thinking, which makes the highest human ideals its particular concern, must arrive at some sort of relation towards social wants and claims. Now Anthroposophy aims at being such a mode of thinking for the present times; and therefore it is but natural, that people should enquire what its relation is towards the social question.

It might at first seem as though Anthroposophy had nothing particular to say in this connection. The most striking feature of Anthroposophy will be deemed, at first sight, to be the cultivation of the soul's inward life and the opening of the eyes to a spiritual world. This endeavor can be seen by any unprejudiced person from the most cursory acquaintance with the ideas promulgated by anthroposophic speakers and writers. It is harder, however, to see that these endeavors at the present moment have any practical significance: in particular, its connection with the social question is by no means self-evident. Many people will ask: “Of what use for bad social conditions can a teaching be which is taken up with Reincarnation, Karma, the Supersensible World, the Rise of Man, and so forth? Such a line of thought seems to soar altogether too far off into cloudland, away from any reality; whereas just now every single person urgently needs to keep all his wits about him, in order to grapple with the actual problems of which earth's realities give him enough.

Of the many and various opinions that Anthroposophy inevitably calls forth in the present day, two shall be mentioned here.

The first consists in regarding Anthroposophy as the outcome of an unbridled and disordered fancy. It is quite natural that people should take this view; and an earnest anthroposophist should be the last to find it strange. Every conversation that he overhears, everything that goes on around him, and in which people find amusement and pleasure, all may show him that he talks a language which, to many of them, is downright folly. But this understanding of his surroundings will need to go hand in hand with an absolute assurance that he himself is on the right road; otherwise he will hardly be able to hold his ground when he realizes how his views conflict with those of so many others, who count as thinkers and highly educated persons. If he does possess the due assurance, if he knows the truth and the force of his views, he says to himself: — ”I know very well that today I may be regarded as a crackbrained visionary; and I clearly see why. But truth, even though it is ridiculed and mocked at, will have its effect; and its effect is not dependent upon people's opinion, but upon the solidity of its own foundations.”

The other opinion which Anthroposophy has to meet is this: that its ideas are all very beautiful and comforting, and may have their value for the inner life of the soul, but are worthless for the practical struggle of life. Even people who demand anthroposophic nourishment for the appeasing of their spiritual wants may be tempted, only too easily, to say to themselves: “It is all very well; but how about the social distress, the material misery? That is a problem on which all this idealistic world can throw no light.” Now this opinion is the very one which rests on a total failure to recognize the real facts of life, and, above all, on a misunderstanding as to the real fruits of the anthroposophic mode of thinking. The one question that people, as a rule, ask about Anthroposophy is: — What are its doctrines? How are its statements to be proved? And then, of course, they look for its fruits in the pleasurable sensations to be extracted from its doctrines.

Nothing, of course, could be more natural; one must certainly begin by having a feeling for the truth of statements that are presented to one. But the true fruits of Anthroposophy are not to be sought in such feeling. Its fruits are first really seen when anyone comes, with a heart and mind trained in Anthroposophy, to the practical problems of life. The question is, whether Anthroposophy will at all help him towards handling these problems with discernment and applying himself with understanding to find ways and means of solving them.

To be effective in life, a man must first understand life. Here lies the gist of the matter. So long as one asks no further than: What does Anthroposophy teach? — Its teachings may be deemed too exalted for practical life. But if one turns to consider the kind of discipline that the thoughts and feelings undergo from these teachings, this objection will cease. Strange as it may seem to a merely superficial view of the matter, it is nevertheless a fact: These anthroposophic ideas, that appear to hover so airily in the clouds, train the eye for a right conduct of everyday affairs. And because Anthroposophy begins by leading the spirit aloft into the clear regions above the sense-world, it thereby sharpens the understanding for social requirements. Paradoxical as this may seem, it is none the less true.

To give merely an illustration of what is meant: An uncommonly interesting book has recently appeared, A Working-man in America (Als Arbeiter in Amerika, pub. Sigismund, Berlin) The author is State-Councillor Kolb, who had the enterprise to spend several months as a common worker in America. In this way he acquired a discrimination of men and of life which was obviously neither to be obtained along the educational paths that led to councillorship, nor from the mass of experience which he was able to accumulate in such a position and in all the other posts that a man fills before he becomes a Councillor of State. He was thus for years in a position of considerable responsibility; and yet, not until he had left this, and lived — just a short while — in a foreign land, did he learn the knowledge of life that enabled him to write the following memorable sentence in his book: “How often, in old days, when I saw a sound, sturdy man begging, had I not asked, in righteous indignation: Why doesn't the lazy rascal work? I knew now, why. The fact is, it looks quite different in theory from what it does in practice; and at the study table one can deal quite comfortably with even the most unsavory chapters of political economy.”

To prevent any possible misunderstanding, let it be said at once, that no one can feel anything but the warmest appreciation for a man who could bring himself to leave a comfortable position in life, in order to go and do hard labor in a brewery and a bicycle factory. It is a deed worthy of all respect, and it must be duly emphasized, lest it should be imagined that any disparagement is intended of the man who did it. Nevertheless, for anyone who will face the facts, it is unmistakably evident that all this man's book-learning, all the schooling he had been through, had not given him the ability to read life.

Just try and realize all that is involved in such an admission! One may learn everything which, in these days, qualifies one to hold posts of considerable influence; and yet, with it all, one may be quite remote and aloof from that life where one's sphere of action lies. Is it not much the same, as though a man were to go through a course of training in bridge construction, and then, when called upon actually to build a bridge, had no notion how to set about it? And yet, no! — it is not quite the same. Anyone who is not properly trained for bridge building will soon be enlightened as to his deficiencies when he comes to actual practice. He will soon show himself to be a bungler and find his services generally declined. But when a man is not properly trained for his work in social life, his deficiencies are not so readily demonstrated. A badly built bridge breaks down; and then even the most prejudiced can see that he who built it was a bungler. But the bungling that goes on in social work is not so directly apparent. It only shows itself in the suffering of one's fellow-men. And the connection between this suffering and bungling is not one that people recognize as readily as the connection between the breakdown of a bridge and the incompetent bridge builder.

“But what has all this to do with Anthroposophy?” someone will say. “Do the friends of Anthroposophy imagine that what they can teach would have helped Councillor Kolb to a better understanding of life? Of what use would it have been to him, supposing he had known about reincarnation and karma and any number of supersensible worlds? Surely nobody will maintain that ideas about planetary systems and higher worlds could have saved the State-Councillor from having one day to confess to himself, that at the study table one can deal quite comfortably with even the most unsavory chapters of political economy?” The friend of Anthroposophy might indeed answer — as Lessing did on a certain occasion: I am that “Nobody”, for I do maintain it! Not meaning of course, that the doctrine of reincarnation, or the knowledge of karma will be enough to equip a man for social activity, that would, of course, be a very naive notion. Naturally, the thing is not to be done simply by taking the people, who are destined for Councillors of State, and, instead of sending them to Schmoller, or Wagner, or Brentano at the University, setting them to study Blavatsky's Secret Doctrine. But the point is this: Suppose a theory of economics, produced by someone well versed in Anthroposophy — will it be of the kind with which one can deal quite comfortably at the study table, but which breaks down in the face of practical life? That is just what it will not be. For when do theories break down in the face of real life? When they are produced by the kind of thinking that is not educated to real life. Now the principles of Anthroposophy are as much the actual laws of life as the principles of electricity are the actual laws for the manufacture of electrical apparatus. Anyone who wishes to set up a factory of electrical apparatus must first master the true principles of electricity: and whoever intends to take an effective part in life must first make himself acquainted with the laws of life. And remote as the doctrines of Anthroposophy appear to be from life, they are no less near to it in actual truth. Aloof and unpractical to superficial observation, for a genuine understanding they are the key to real life.

It is not merely an inquisitive desire of new things which leads people to withdraw into an “anthroposophic circle” in order to obtain all sorts of “interesting” revelations about worlds beyond; but because there they learn to school their thought and feeling and will on the “eternal laws of life”, and to go forth into the thick of life with a clear, keen eye for the understanding of it. The teachings of Anthroposophy are a detour of arriving at a full-lived thinking, discerning, feeling.

The anthroposophic movement will first come into its right channel when this is fully recognized. Right doing is the outcome of right thinking; and wrong doing is the outcome of thinking wrongly — or of not thinking at all. Anyone who has any faith at all in the possibility of doing good in social matters must admit that the doing of it is a question of human faculties. To have worked patiently and persistently through the anthroposophical conceptions means enhanced faculties for effective social work. It is here not so much a question of the thoughts that Anthroposophy gives a man, as of what it enables him to do with his thinking.

It must be confessed that, within anthroposophic circles themselves, there has hitherto been no very marked sign of any effort in this particular direction. It is therefore equally undeniable that, on this very account, strangers to Anthroposophy have as yet every reason for questioning the above statements. But it must not be forgotten that the anthroposophic movement in its present form is only at the beginning of its career as an effective force. Its further progress will consist in its making its way into every field of practical life. And then, in the Social Question, for instance, it will be found that, in place of theories “with which one can deal quite comfortably at the study table,” we shall have others which facilitate the insight required for a sound, unbiased judgment of life's affairs, and direct a man's will into lines of action that shall be for the health and happiness of his fellow-men.

Plenty of people will say at once: Councillor Kolb's case itself is a proof that there is no need to call in Anthroposophy; all that is wanted is that anyone who is preparing for a particular profession should not acquire the theory of it solely by sitting at home and studying, but should be brought into contact with actual life, so that he may approach his work practically, as well as theoretically. Kolb, after all — they will say — merely required a brief glimpse into real life, and then, even what he had already learnt was quite enough for him to come to other opinions than those he had before. No, it is not enough, for the fault lies deeper down.

A person may have learnt to see that, with a faulty training, he can only build bridges that will tumble down, and yet still be very far from having acquired the faculty of building bridges that do not tumble down. For this he must first have preliminary education of a kind that has the seeds of life in it. Most certainly a man needs only a glimpse into social conditions, and, let his theory as to the fundamental laws of life be ever so defective, he will cease to say: “Why doesn't the last rascal work?” He learns to see that the conditions themselves are the answer. But is that enough to teach him how to shape conditions so that men may prosper? All the well-meaning people, who have concocted schemes for the betterment of man's lot, were undoubtedly not of the same way of thinking as Councillor Kolb before he took his trip to America. They were certainly already convinced, without such an expedition, that every case of distress cannot simply be dismissed with the phrase: “Why doesn't the lazy rascal work?” But does this mean that all their many proposals for social reform would bear fruit? Assuredly not; if only for the reason that so many of them are contradictory. And therefore one may fairly say that even Councillor Kolb's more positive schemes of reform, after his conversion, would possibly not have any very marked results.

This is just the mistake which our age makes in such matters. Everyone thinks himself qualified to understand life, even though he has never troubled to become acquainted with its fundamental laws, nor ever trained his thinking powers to recognize what the true forces of life are. And Anthroposophy is indeed a training for the sound judgment of life, because it goes to the bottom of life. It is of no use whatever simply to see that the conditions bring a man into unfavorable circumstances in life, under which he goes to grief. One must learn to know the forces by which favorable conditions are created. That is what our experts in political economy are unable to do — and for much the same reason as a man cannot do sums if he does not know the multiplication tables. You may set columns of figures before him — as many as you please; but staring at them will not help him. Put a man, who has no thinking grasp of the fundamental forces of social life, before the actual realities; he may give the most telling description of everything that he sees; but the windings of the social forces, as they twist their coil for human weal or human woe, will yet remain insoluble to him.

In this age we need an interpretation of life which leads us on to life's true sources. And Anthroposophy can be such an interpretation of life. If everyone, before making up his mind as to the particular social reform that “the world wants”, would first go through a training in the life-lessons of Anthroposophy, we should get further. That anthroposophists today only “talk” and do not “act”, is a meaningless objection; for of course people cannot act, so long as the paths of action are closed to them. A man may be an expert in the knowledge of the soul, and ever so well acquainted with all that a father should do for the upbringing of his children; yet he is powerless to act, unless the father gives him the charge of their education. There is nothing to be done in this respect, save wait in patience, until the talking of the anthroposophists has opened the minds of those who have the power to act. And that will come.

This first objection no more holds water than the other one: That these anthroposophical notions have not yet been put to the test, and may very likely prove, when brought into the open, to be every whit as barren a theory as the political economy of State-Councillor Kolb. But this again is no argument. Indeed it can only be urged by someone who is wholly unacquainted with the very nature and essence of anthroposophic truths. Whoever is acquainted with them well knows that they rest on quite a different footing from the kind of thing that one “tests”.

The fact is that the laws of human welfare are inscribed with as much certitude in the very first fundaments of men's souls as the multiplication table. One must only go down deep enough to the basis of the human soul to find them. No doubt what is thus inscribed in the soul can be demonstrated objectively; just as it can objectively be demonstrated that twice two is four by arranging 4 peas in two sets. But would anyone maintain that the truth “Twice two is four” must first be “tested” on the peas? The two things are in every way comparable. He who questions an anthroposophic truth is someone who has not yet recognized it; just as only a person can question that twice two is four, who has not yet recognized it. Widely as they differ, inasmuch as the one is very simple, and the other very complicated, yet in other respects there is an analogy between them.

It is true that one must first study Anthroposophy itself before one can clearly perceive this. And therefore for those who are unacquainted with Anthroposophy, no “proof” of the fact can be adduced. One can only say: First become acquainted with Anthroposophy, and then all this too will be clear to you.

The great mission of Anthroposophy in our age will first become evident when Anthroposophy works like a leaven in every part of life. Until the road of actual life can be trodden in the fullest sense of the word, those into whose minds Anthroposophy has entered are but at the beginning of their work. So long, too, they must be prepared to have it cast in their teeth that their doctrines are the foes of real life. Yes, these doctrines are the foes of real life, just as the railway was the foe of a kind of life which regarded the stage-coach as life's only reality, and could see no further. They are its foes in the same way as the future is the foe of the past.

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