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The Tension Between East and West

Introduction by Owen Barfield

On-line since: 15th August, 2012


FIRST, in case it should mislead, a word about the English title. The German original bears the formidable superscription: Westliche und östliche Weltgegensätzlichkeit; and the modest little English word “tension” signifies very much more than the diplomatic and political strain, which is more or less chronic now between the Western democracies on the one hand and Russia and the Communist countries on the other. At the same time the book which follows is far from irrelevant to that strain, of which it is in a measure prophetic.

“The spectre of Eastern Europe,” we read on page page 115 (and these words were spoken in 1922), “gazes threateningly across to the West.” But it is only at surface level, and when something specific is amiss, that a “tension” betokens an unnatural strain, or one that threatens disaster unless it is relaxed. Thus both modern psychology, and modern theology, often speak of “holding in tension” as a normal and healthy activity. The clash of two opposites — such for instance as individual freedom and responsibility — will always create a tension. Whether the tension snaps in a neurosis or a war, or whether it is “held” in health and strength and peace, will often depend on whether the clash is merely encountered as a bewildering contradiction, or is understood in depth as a necessary and life-engendering polarity.

Since the end of the nineteenth century the world has been moving steadily in the direction of a single closed economy; and now willy-nilly it seems on the way to becoming a single social unit also. The only question is: of what kind is that unity to be? A living unity, as distinct from the monolithic unity of mere spatial cohesion, always (as Coleridge among others has pointed out) springs from a polarity; and polarity involves, not only the two opposite extremes or poles, but also, as its tertium quid, the vibrant tension in the midst between them. It is a principal object of this book to furnish an understanding in depth of what most unites the habitable globe, historically and culturally, into an organic whole, and this necessarily involves an understanding of the abiding tension between East and West.

To understand anything in depth involves some knowledge of how it came into being, and here the attempt is made to view the relation between typically Eastern and typically Western modes of consciousness in the light of the whole process of the evolution of human consciousness. In this Rudolf Steiner was up against the difficulty that the very existence of such a process was then — and it is still today — not generally recognized. That this is surprising “in an age permeated with evolutionary concepts” has recently been pointed out by Mr. Charles Davy, in his book Towards a Third Culture, in the course of which he defines the evolution of consciousness as “a constant-direction change in the normal experience of the perceived world.” It is the more surprising because it would seem that, without such a concept, little can be accomplished in the way of understanding man and his problems. Examples of this abound in the ensuing pages. Thus, just as the concept of biological evolution is necessary before we can distinguish whether the resemblance of one living form to another is due to a superficial analogy or to a true homology rooted in their nature and growth, so does the concept of evolution of consciousness enable us to discern the purely superficial nature of the resemblance between “division of labour” in oriental antiquity and in modern times. Or again, in the same lecture (8) in which the above example occurs, compare with the usual chatter about “escapism” Steiner's treatment of the old conflict between the image of the artist as a “committed” human being and the image of “art for art's sake.”

In his book, The Yogi and the Commissar, which appeared in 1945, Arthur Koestler began by placing his Yogi and Commissar at the opposite poles of a “spectrum” of human nature or social behaviour — an ultra-violet and an infra-red pole, between which all human types subsist. The Yogi, he said, accepts the inner spirit as the source of energy; he attempts to produce change from within. The Commissar does not believe in any “within;” he attempts to change the behaviour of man by manipulation from without. Koestler defines his Commissar as “the human type which has completely severed relations with the subconscious.” And there is more to the same effect. But this promising introduction is never developed; nor does Koestler so much as notice the paradox implicit in his own striking choice of labels — redolent, as they are, of a polarity between East and West, and yet with the “Yogi” corresponding, not to the Eastern (as one would expect), but to the anti-communist Western pole.

Let the reader contrast with this brilliant but inadequate aperçu the counter concepts of “maya” and “ideology” which Steiner builds up in Lecture 4 on the historical foundations (including a careful appraisal of actual yoga) which he has laid in the first three lectures. They are the fruit of understanding in depth, because they are rooted in a deep grasp of the whole history of man and of his place on earth and in the cosmos.

In the threefold nature of man, as Steiner expounded it, the rest is as it were implicit. Past, present and future; religion, art and science; the slow shift of the earth's cultural centre of gravity from orient to Occident, and with that the transition from an ancient instinctual wisdom to our modern self-consciousness, subsisting in free but lifeless thoughts — all this (such is the message of the following pages) can really only be contemplated and understood in understanding and contemplating threefold man. In his head, taken alone, the human being, qua thinker, does really reach a “commissar's” inner emptiness. He also experiences “the terror of that emptiness,” as Steiner points out on page 104 and as the Existentialists have since so heavily stressed. But there is a way, of which Existentialism knows nothing as yet, by which humanity can fill its experienced emptiness with spiritual substance. If a man is willing to follow that way and to develop his dormant powers, if he will learn how to hold his conscious but empty thinking in tension with the opposite pole of his being, his unconscious but substantial will, then not only his nerves and senses but the whole man can become a sense-organ, capable of re-experiencing in freedom the instinctual wisdom by which mankind was formerly nourished — but also controlled. He finds (we are told on page 94) “the cosmos stored up as recollection inside him.”

Thus the problem of the relation between East and West leads quickly into an exposition of both the philosophical basis and what may be called the “methodology” of that spiritual science, or anthroposophy, with which the name of Rudolf Steiner is principally associated. This is, of course, the original feature that marks our book off from any other on the same subject. It may also be, for many, a stumbling-block in the way of according to the thoughts it contains the candid attention which their intrinsic quality would otherwise command. For, if the method is presented as open to all — as indeed it is — the actual development of the dormant powers referred to depends on certain qualities, of character and otherwise, which few human beings have as yet brought with them into the world. Among those few, though he never expressly makes the claim, Steiner himself was pre-eminent. Readers who become aware, or who already know, how much the findings of anthroposophy, including this very concept of the evolution of consciousness, depend on Steiner's own raids on that stored up cosmic memory (elsewhere more technically referred to by him as the “Akashic Record”) and who are perhaps inclined to dismiss for that reason their claim to attention, will find here a reasoned justification of the method of spiritual science, which asks no more than to be fairly considered on its merits.

For this reason among others “the Vienna Course,” as it is often called, seemed a good choice to make, out of the voluminous material available, for a special book to lay before the English public, under a well-known imprint, shortly after the centenary of Steiner's birth in 1961, when through public lectures, a broadcast talk and other avenues, the attention of many was no doubt drawn for the first time to his work and its practical results.

Another reason for the choice is, that the relation between spiritual science and natural science is here clearly and fully stated at the outset. The reader will be left in no doubt of Steiner's immense respect for the science of the West, as it has actually developed since the scientific revolution; perhaps also in little doubt of his thorough acquaintance with the natural science of his own day. That can in any event in fact be demonstrated from other sources. To the present writer the most significant ground for the claim of spiritual science to be a science, and to merit careful investigation alongside the deferential attention paid as a matter of course to the established sciences, is the one which is glanced at on page 56, and more fully stated on pages 69, 70. It is a ground which has broadened a good deal during the forty years that have elapsed since these lectures were delivered, and it is this. If we look aside for a moment from their proven efficacy in the field of straightforward physical manipulation and consider rather their claim (abandoned now altogether in some quarters) to furnish us with knowledge about the nature of man and the world, it must be admitted that the matter dealt with by the established sciences is coming to be composed less and less of actual observations, more and more of such things as pointer-readings on dials, the same pointer-readings arranged by electronic computers, inferences from inferences, higher mathematical formulae and other recondite abstractions. Yet modern science began with a turning away from abstract cerebration to objective observation! And this is the very step which spiritual science claims to be taking again today. Once grant the possibility that observations other than those made with the passive and untrained senses are possible, and you have to admit that the method of cognition which Steiner describes is more scientific, because more empirical, than the method of the schools.

In addition to the twenty or so books which he wrote, most of which are translated into English, Rudolf Steiner delivered several thousands of lectures, many of them in courses or cycles, in different parts of Europe. His followers saw to it that most of these were taken down in shorthand and afterwards transcribed for the use of the Movement. Later the transcriptions, unrevised by the lecturer, were in many cases made available as printed books; and this is the case here. Audiences varied widely in size, nationality, educational background and other respects, and Steiner was wont to vary his style accordingly. The reader may like to know that these particular lectures were given during a “West-East Congress” of the Anthroposophical Movement in Vienna in June 1922. They provided each evening a sort of temporary culmination of the various themes which had been studied during the day, and the usual number in the audience was about two thousand.

Steiner remarked afterwards, in a written report, that public conferences of this magnitude represented a new departure from his normal practice of approaching only those who were in a manner predisposed to listen sympathetically to what he had to say. Surely it was no small achievement to shepherd an audience of two thousand, not all of them sympathetic, through such unfamiliar and subtle catenations of thought as the reader will find in Lecture 2! Some of those who are familiar with the literature of anthroposophy have detected in this particular cycle a special note — a touch of almost apologetic urbanity — which is found nowhere else. Perhaps this also makes them a suitable choice for the purpose mentioned above.

Rudolf Steiner died in 1925. The years that have passed since then have been crowded and fateful ones, changing the face of the world and the colour of its thought. It would be surprising if there were nothing here that “dated.” For instance, a contempt for Western technological achievement, as something philistine and unspiritual, can no longer be regarded as the characteristic oriental reaction it was in 1922, when he was speaking. Indeed the whole difference between the spiritual — or unspiritual — life of Orient and Occident daily becomes increasingly blurred. But is not this a symptom of the very trend to which Steiner was drawing attention? The elimination of a tension-holding middle between the two extremes leads here, as elsewhere, to their chaotic and sinister interaction. Even in 1922 the typically Western materialism of the German Karl Marx was streaming back to Germany and the West from Eastern Europe. Since then, we have seen the rise and fall of a largely Westernized Japan, the succumbing of China to the crudest materialism of all, the incipient industrialization of India. Almost as these lines were being written the elimination of anything that could be called Middle Europe was carried to its absurdly logical conclusion, and the interval between East and West reduced, in Berlin, to the thickness of a wall.

An Austrian subject, born in a part of Europe which is now just behind the iron curtain, Steiner was himself a child of that vanishing Middle Europe. Nowhere perhaps could the disappearance after 1914 of the old order, rich in ancient hierarchy and symbol, rotten in so much else, be experienced as vividly as in Austria-Hungary. Nowhere was the need so apparent, and (for a short time after the first World War) the opportunity so promising for the construction of a new social order, which might unite in a single organism the impulse of humanity towards the future with the wisdom it inherited from the past. It was this fleeting opportunity which he had been seeking to exploit during the brief period in 1919 and the early twenties when the Threefold Commonwealth Movement was founded and vigorously propagated, and when for a time his name was well known in Central Europe.

The opportunity passed that might have brought quick returns from a lightning campaign. But few of the problems have been solved. That “faith in the supreme power of the State” (page 166) which he noted as accompanying the growth of technology, has only gone on increasing; and everywhere within it, between class and class, between one State and another, and between East and West, antagonisms swell and proliferate. Koestler's Yogi had his emotional energies fixed on “the relation between the individual and the universe,” his Commissar on “the relation between individual and society.” In the second half of this book an attempt is made to show how the two relations coalesce in the threefold nature of man. A reconstruction of society is, no less than is a rebirth of individual psychology, implicit in the findings of spiritual science and would follow naturally and inevitably from a wider understanding of these. Whereas a society “planned” on abstract principles must inevitably strangle all progress, if only because (as F. A. Hayek has recently argued on purely empirical grounds) the unpredictable, free individual spirit is your only source of novelty and change.

Once again all turns on the basic fact of the evolution of human consciousness. On the one hand such an evolution necessarily involves changes in the social structure, but on the other hand that structure, and the changes which it demands, cannot be understood except in the light of that evolution. In the long run the views on diet of a man who had never heard of bread would be about as practical as the views on social reform of a man who is unaware that humanity is evolving from a typically oriental condition, in which the existence of the individual is latent in society, to a typically occidental one, in which the existence of society is latent in the individual. “What is needed,” says Steiner, on page 164, “is prefigured in the unconscious will of mankind in Europe.”

In Europe and, as he elsewhere makes clear, in America. Perhaps few passages in this book could be more immediately fruitful in removing perilous misunderstandings than the closing pages of Lecture 9, where much, over there, of what we on this side of the Atlantic are apt to despise as emotionally crude or intellectually superficial, is related to a certain un-European conception of the human will; and it is emphasized that this very conception, primitive as the terms in which it is expressed may be, nevertheless “carries within itself striking potentialities for the future.”

But it is time the reader was left to make his own acquaintance with the ideas which follow in the form in which Steiner himself expressed them. He will be disappointed if he seeks in them a schematic diagram of the nature or history of humanity or a panacea for its personal and social ills. But it may be otherwise if with an open mind he travels through these pages expecting only what he will find: a patient examination into the way in which we form our ideas and the historical and geographical factors by which that way is conditioned, and, along with that, a preliminary contribution towards the unfreezing of certain hidden reserves of energy, imagination and wit, which would seem to be essential if human civilization is to be rescued from decline.

February 1962.


Last Modified: 15-Nov-2017
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