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Self Observation

Rudolf Steiner Archive & e.Lib Document

Sketch of Rudolf Steiner lecturing at the East-West Conference in Vienna.

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Self Observation

On-line since: 31st October, 2016


As an indication of his intentions, Dr. Steiner inscribed upon the title page of his “Philosophy of Spiritual Activity” these words: — “What we find, when, in conformity with the methods of natural science, we observe our own inner being

The procedure of Natural Science is well-known: — “Reject appeals to authority and to tradition! Let the facts decide! Trust nothing but evidence! Observe for yourself! Test for yourself! Let actual experience be the criterion of truth! Let your views arise not out of credulity but out of vigilant, critical intelligence!” This is the method of Dr. Steiner's book. It asks of the student nothing except open-minded consideration of the facts of his own being.

The reader may find such mental receptivity less easy than he would have anticipated. Below the level of consciousness, we are all of us subject to numberless influences that prevent us from seeing things objectively. The reader is never, as he reads what Dr. Steiner has written, asked to accept any statement on authority. But he is continuously asked to listen with the whole of his truth-loving self to what the author has to say.

Dr. Steiner contends that if we are willing to look without any a priori assumptions at the facts of our own being, we shall find beyond controversy that we have within us a source of spiritual activity, — that though external physical conditions in general determine what we do, it is not beyond our power to assert ourselves and defy them.

If Dr. Steiner can make good his claims, this book would seem to have for present-day mankind a hardly exaggerable importance. It offers to a thinking, educated, modern-minded person what religious agencies are no longer able to give him — the certainty of his own supersensible being. Whoever makes this book his own, will have come to know that he stands possessed of a perpetual fountain of self-originated energies. He becomes unshakably able to trust in his own selfhood. He knows unanswerably that he is possessed of free spiritual activity.

It is becoming more and more obvious that unless mankind is capable of a spiritual awakening, disasters we dare not envisage are in store for us. But no genuine, permanent, effective spiritual awakening is practicable except as a result of the sort of appeal that Steiner makes in this book — an appeal to the individual man or woman, — an appeal to experience, — an appeal to intelligence. That — in such a state of human affairs — this book of Steiner's should be known only in tiny Anthroposophical circles is a tragedy. Wherever there are thinking men and women, in any corner of the globe, it has potential readers. Its proper destiny is that of establishing a common understanding the world over among thinking, responsibly-minded men and women; of offering a starting-point for the re-making of civilisation.

The “Philosophy of Spiritual Activity” is not easy reading. if more people are to be got to read it, they will have to be offered encouragement. This I try to give in these pages.

The first half of Rudolf Steiner's life was essentially occupied with his struggle to understand and to formulate what is stated in the “Philosophy of Spiritual Activity.” Of this struggle he gives his own account in his autobiography. The reader will find it well worth his while, before he sets to work on the “Philosophy of Spiritual Activity” itself, to read the first seventeen sections of “Mein Lebensgang.” I have ventured here to present a few characteristic passages.

Inwardly occupied though he was, throughout early manhood, with his basic struggle to understand human thinking and human willing, Dr. Steiner was ostensibly at work for the most part upon Goethe's natural-science writings. He edited these as a whole in five volumes for the Kürschner “Deutsche National Literatur.” He worked in the Goethe Archives at Weimar from 1891 to 1897, contributing further scientific studies to the standard Weimar Edition of Goethe. He paused, so to speak, amid these commissioned labours, to issue on his own account a book he called: — “The Theory of Knowledge according to Goethe's Conception of the World.” He says of it in a Preface written twenty-five years later: — [This Theory of Knowledge] “is the foundation and justification for all that I have since affirmed orally or in print.” It is, as the title indicates, an account of the way in which Goethe's mind works; but it is also an account of the essential operations of the human mind as such. Here we have a kind of anticipatory sketch of what is said in the “Philosophy of Spiritual Activity,” more particularly of what is said in Part I. It is simpler than the sequel to it, — more easily read. If the student has first read the Theory of Knowledge book, he will certainly find himself better equipped to grapple with the “Philosophy of Spiritual Activity.” I offer here a brief outline of the main argument of the earlier work.

The body of this booklet of mine is some sort of statement of what Dr. Steiner says in the “Philosophy of Spiritual Activity.” Chapter by chapter, I have tried to give the essential argument. (And what I say can be read as a self-contained work, in and for itself).

The charge can be brought against me that I have over-simplified things, e.g. in leaving out Dr. Steiner's many references to contemporary thinkers. Such an accusation is justifiable but I claim to have done rightly with such a book as this to lay myself open to it. Long and varied experience with students has convinced me that most readers of the “Philosophy of Spiritual Activity” will be grateful for an abbreviated statement of what in any particular chapter, or in the book as a whole, Dr. Steiner is expressing. That I have not here pursued the argument into every subtle ramification does not seem to me for a book of this sort to matter so much; nor even that (as is certain) I have often mistaken or partly mistaken the meaning. What I offer is intended only as an “introduction.” It sets out merely to stimulate the reader's study by indicating to him how what Dr. Steiner says has struck a fellow-student. It is not meant to be, and could not conceivably be, any substitute for the “Philosophy of Spiritual Activity” itself. This little book is an infinitesimally small moon to an immensely great sun.

Last Modified: 17-Oct-2020
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