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On The Art of Lecturing

Schmidt Number: S-4632

On-line since: 15th April, 2010



Pedantic lecturers upset the listeners' stomachs. Learn lecturing by listening: watch how others do it, good or bad. Reluctance to speak is the virtue, not eagerness to hear one's own voice. A debater turns his opponent's image and word against him. Jokers create too much acidity in the listeners' stomachs. Words precede deeds.

LECTURE IV (Excerpts [Note 1])

One has to accustom oneself to speak differently on every soil, if one intends to be active as a lecturer ... Thus, a talk is to be formulated differently, depending on whether it is delivered here in Switzerland, in Germany, or whether at this or that time.

One would, of course, have to speak again quite differently in England or in America. What can be done from here, in Europe, in regard to these two countries, can only be a sort of substitute. It is good, for example, if Die Kernpunkte der sozialen Frage [The Threefold Social Order] is translated, it is good if it is widely distributed; but, as I have said from the beginning, the really proper thing finally would be if the Kernpunkte were written quite differently for America and for England. For both Switzerland and Central Europe, it can be taken quite literally, word for word, the way it stands. But for England and America it would really have to be composed quite differently, because in those countries one addresses people who, first of all, have the opposite attitude of what existed, for instance, in Germany in April of 1919. In Germany the opinion prevailed that something new would have to come, and to begin with it would suffice if one knew what this were. There wasn't the strength to comprehend it, but there was the feeling that what this rational innovation might be, ought to be known. Naturally, in all of England and America not the slightest sense of this exists anywhere. The only concern there is how to secure and save the old. The question is how properly to secure the old. The old values are good! One must not shake the traditional foundations. I am aware, of course, that when anything like this is said, it can be replied: Yes, but there are so many progressive movements in the Western hemisphere! — Still, all these progressive movements, regardless of whether their content is new, are reactionary and conservative in so far as their management is concerned. There, the feeling that things cannot continue the way they have gone until now, must first be called forth.

*    *    *

Things must everywhere be sought out in the concrete.

... I would like to show how an elasticity of concepts for these things [rights relationships] has to be acquired — how one has to point out both sides of a question, — and how one must be able to dispose oneself first, in order to have the necessary fluency to speak in front of people.

There is another reason why a lecturer of today must be aware of such things. Most of the time, he is condemned to speak in the evening, when he wants to present something concerning the future. This means that he has to make use of the time when people really prefer to be either in the concert hall or in the theater. Thus, the lecturer must be absolutely clear that he is speaking to an audience that, according to the mood of the hour, would be better off in the concert hall, the theater, or some other place, — but not in fact down there, where it is supposed to listen, while above, a lecturer talks about things vouchsafed for the future. One must he aware of what one is really doing, down to the last detail.

For, what does one in fact do when addressing an audience such as one is mostly condemned to speak in front of nowadays? Quite literally, one upsets the listener's stomach! A serious speech has the peculiarity of adversely affecting the pepsin, of not allowing the stomach juices to take effect. A serious lecture causes stomach acidity. And only if one is oneself in such a mood that one can present a serious talk, at least inwardly, with the necessary humor, can the stomach juices be assisted again. A lecture has to be presented with a certain inner lightness, — with a certain modulation, with a certain enthusiasm; then one aids the stomach juices. Then one neutralizes what one inflicts on the stomach in the time when we normally have to lecture today. The threefold social order is not being served, but rather stomach specialists, when people speak in all gravity, with heavy expressive manner, pedantically, on three-folding. It must be done with a light touch and matter-of-factness or else one does not further the threefold social order but the stomach specialists. It is just that there are no statistics available on the number of people who have to go to stomach specialists after they have listened to pedantic lectures! If there were statistics on these things, one would be astonished at the percentage among patients of stomach specialists who are eager lecture-goers nowadays.

I must call attention to these things, because the time is drawing near when it must be known how the human being actually lives. — How seriousness affects his stomach, how humor affects his stomach juices; how, let us say for example, wine is like a kind of cynic who doesn't take the whole human organism seriously, but plays with it. If the human organism were approached with human concepts rather than with the wishy-washy concepts of today's science, it would be observed all over how every word and every world-relation calls forth an organic, almost chemical effect in the human being.

Knowing such things makes lecturing easier too. Whereas there is otherwise a barrier between speaker and audience, this barrier ceases to exist if it is to some extent perceived how the stomach juices curdle, and eventually become sour in the stomach and impair the stomach walls, in the case of a pedantic talk. Occasionally there is the opportunity of seeing it: though less in lecture-halls of universities, — there, the students protect themselves by not listening!

From all this, you can see how much depends on the mood in lecturing, — how much more important — preparing the atmosphere, having it in hand, is, than to get the lecture ready word for word. He who has prepared himself often for the correct mood need not concern himself with the verbal details to a point where, at a given moment, the latter would make him the upsetter of stomach juices.

Various things — if I may so express it — go to make up a duly equipped speaker. I should like to present them at this particular point because an explanation of “rights concepts” requires much that has to be characterized in this direction. [In another part of this lecture, Rudolf Steiner had already discussed aspects of justice not having to do with the art of lecturing. — Note by translator.] I would like to present this now, before talking tomorrow about the interweaving of the “economic elements” in speaking.

An anthroposophist once brought the well-known philosopher, Max Dessoir (1867–1947) — whom you also perhaps know — along one evening, to the Architektenhaus in Berlin, when I was to hold a lecture there. This one-time friend of Max Dessoir said afterwards, “Oh, that Dessoir didn't respond after all! — I asked him how he had liked the lecture and he replied: ‘Well, you know, I'm a lecturer myself, and anyone who is himself a speaker can't listen properly; he has no opinion on what another lecturer says!’ ” — Now, I did not need to form a judgement about Dessoir after this declaration; I had other opportunities for that, indeed I wouldn't have done so based on this utterance, since I could not know at all whether it was really true, or whether, as usual, Dessoir had lied this time also. But assuming it were true: what would it be a proof of? — That at any rate the one who holds such a view can never become an adequate speaker. A person can never become a good speaker who likes to speak, who likes to hear himself talk, and attaches special importance to his own speaking. A good speaker really always has to endure a certain reluctance when he is to speak. He must clearly feel this reluctance. Above all, he should much prefer listening to another speaker, even the worst, to speaking himself.

I know very well what I say with this statement, and I well realize how difficult it is for some of you to believe me in this. But it is so. Of course, I concede that there are other pleasures in the world than listening to poor speakers. But at all events, speaking oneself ought not to belong to these other greater pleasures. One must even feel a certain urge to hear others; even enjoy listening to others. For it is really through listening that one becomes a speaker, not through love of speaking oneself. A certain fluency is acquired through speaking, but this has to proceed instinctively. What makes one a speaker is actually listening, developing an ear for the distinctive traits of other speakers, even if they are poor ones. Therefore, I shall answer everyone who asks me how best to prepare himself to become a good speaker: he should hear and especially read — I have explained the difference between hearing and reading — he should hear and read the lectures of others! (That can after all be done, since the nuisance prevails of printing lectures.) In this way one acquires a strong feeling of distaste for one's own speaking. And this distaste for one's own speaking is actually what enables one in fact to speak adequately. This is extraordinarily important. And for those people who don't yet manage to view their own speaking with antipathy, it is good at least to retain their stage-fright. — To stand up and lecture without stage-fright and with sympathy for one's own speaking is something that ought to be refrained from, since under all circumstances, the results thus achieved would be negative. It leads to lecturing becoming sclerotic, to ossification, and to capsulated talk, and belongs to the elements that ruin the sermon for people.

I would truly not be speaking about lecturing in the sense of the task of this course if I were to enumerate rules of speaking to you, taken from some old book on rhetoric, or from copied, old rhetorical speeches. Rather, I would like to enjoin upon you, out of living experience, what one should really always have at heart when one wants to affect one's fellow-men by means of lecturing.

Things certainly alter somewhat if one is forced into a debate — if, I should like to say, a certain rights-relationship between person and person arises in the discussion. But in the discussion, through which rights-relationships could be learnt most beautifully, this projecting in of general rights-concepts into the relationship which prevails between two people hardly plays a role today. There, it is really a matter of not being in love with one's own way of thinking and feeling, but rather of feeling averse toward what one would like to say on the topic, and what one actually brings up. This can be done if one understands how to hold back one's own opinion, one's own annoyance or excitability, and can get across into the other person's mind. Then this will be fruitful even in the debate when a statement must be rejected. Of course, one can not simply reiterate what the other person says, but one can appropriate from him what is needed for an effective debate.

A striking example is the following: ( It is retold in the latest issue of Dreigliederung; I experienced it more than twenty years ago.) The delegate Rickert delivered a speech in the German Reichstag, in which he reproached Bismarck for changing his political alignment. He pointed out that Bismarck had gone along with the Liberals for a time, turning afterwards to the Conservatives. He gave an impressive speech, which he summarized in the metaphor, that Bismarck's politics amounted to trimming one's sails to the wind. Now, you can imagine what an effect it has inwardly, in terms of feeling, when such an image is used in a hall of parliament [ — the proper German translation for parliament is really Schwatzanstalt. — ] Bismarck, however, rose and with a certain air of superiority, to begin with, turned the things he had to say against delegate Rickert. And then he projected himself into the other as he always did in similar cases, and said, “Rickert has reproached me for trimming my sails to the wind. But pursuing politics is somewhat like navigating. I would like to know how one can steer properly if one does not want to adjust to the wind! A real sailor, like a real politician, must obviously adjust according to the wind in steering his course, — unless, possibly, he wants to make wind himself!”

You can see, the image is picked up and used, so that the arrow in fact hits back at the archer. In a debate it is a matter of taking things up, of getting things from the other speaker. Where a frivolous illustration is concerned, the matter is comprehensible. But one will also be able to do it in seriousness; seeking out from the opponent himself what unravels the matter! As a rule it will not be much use merely setting one's own reasons against those of the opponent.

In a debate one should be able to attune oneself as follows: The moment the debate gets going one should be in a position to dispose of everything one has known hitherto, drive it all down into the unconscious, and actually only know what the speaker whom one has to reply to, has just said. Then one should squarely exercise one's talent for setting aright what the speaker has said! Exercise the talent for setting aright! In debate it is a matter of taking up immediately what the speaker says, and not simply pitting against it what one already knew long ago. If that is done, as happens in most debates, the debate actually ends inconsequentially, in fact it comes to nothing. One has to be aware that in a debate one can never refute someone. It can only be demonstrated that a speaker either contradicts himself or reality. One can only go into what he has set forth. And that will be of immense importance if it is made use of as the basic principle for debates or discussions. If a person only wants to say in the debate what he has known before, then certainly it will be of no significance at all when he puts it forward after the speaker.

This once stared me in the face in a particularly instructive way. In Holland I was invited on my last trip also to give a lecture on Anthroposophy before the Philosophical Society of the University of Amsterdam. The chairman there was, naturally, already of a different opinion than I. There was no doubt at all that, if he were to engage in the debate, he would say something quite different than I would. But it was equally clear that what he said would ultimately make no difference as regards my lecture, and that my lecture would have no particular influence on what he would say, based on what he knew anyhow. Hence, I considered he did things quite cleverly. He raised what he had to say not subsequently in the debate, but in advance! What he did add later in the debate to his preliminary words he could equally have presented beforehand, at the start — it would not have changed matters a bit.

One must not cherish any illusions about such things. Above all a lecturer should familiarize himself very, very thoroughly with human relationships. But, if things are to have an effect, one cannot allow oneself any illusions about human relationships. Above all — I should like to tell you this today, since it will provide a certain basis for the next lectures — above all, one should not surrender to illusions about the effectiveness of talks!

Inwardly, I always have to get into a terribly humorous frame of mind when well-meaning contemporaries say again and again: It's not a matter of words, it's a matter of deeds! I have heard it declaimed again and again at the most inopportune points, not only in dialogues, but also from various podiums: Words don't count; actions count! As far as what happens in the world in the way of actions, everything depends on words! For those able to get to the bottom of the matter, no actions take place at all that have not been prepared in advance by someone or other through words.

But you will realize that the preparation is something quite subtle! For, if it is true — and it is true! — that through pedantic, theoretical, abstract, Marxist speaking one actually upsets people's stomach juices — whereby the stomach juices infect the rest of the organism — then outside actions, which very much depend on the stomach juices, are the consequence of such bad speeches. The stomach juices flow into the rest of the organism, when dispersed. On the other hand again, when people only act as jokers, stomach juices are produced incessantly, which really works like vinegar, — and vinegar is a frightful hypochondriac. But people will keep on being entertained, and what flows nowadays in public is a continuous whirl of fun-making. The joking-around of yesterday is still not digested, when the fun-making of today makes its appearance. With that, the digestive juices of yesterday go sour and become like vinegar. The human being will in turn be entertained today. He can make merry. But by the way he takes his place in public life, it is really the hypochondriacal vinegar which operates there. And this hypochondriacal vinegar is then to be met with!

In fact, in saloons it is the Marxist speakers who ruin people's stomachs. And if people then read the Vorwaerts [— apparently a comic paper], then this is the means by which the upset stomach must be put in order again. That is a very real process!

... It must be known how the realm of speaking takes its place within the realm of actions. The untruest utterance — because from false sentimentality (and everything stemming from false sentimentality is untrue!) — the untruest utterance vis-a-vis speaking is: “Der Worte sind genug gewechselt, lasst mich auch endlich Taten sehen!” [“The words you've bandied are sufficient: 'tis deeds that I prefer to see.” — Faust, Prelude on Stage.]

That can certainly stand in a passage of a drama. And where it stands it is even justified. But when it is torn out of context and made out to be a general dictum, then it may be “correct,” but good it is quite certainly not! And we should learn not merely beautiful, not merely correct, but also goodspeaking. Otherwise we lead people into the abyss, and can in any case not confer with them about anything worthy of the future.



Note 1. Mainly the second part of a lecture given in Dornach on 14 October 1921. The lecture is the fourth of the Speakers' Course, published in German under the title: Anthroposophie. soziale Oreigliederung und Redekunst. (Rudolf Steiner Verlag, Dornach 1971.) Translated by Maria St. Goar. Revised.

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