Reviewed by Henry Mead
Rudolf Steiner’s life and work is exemplary of the rich confluence of spiritual ideas — Idealist philosophy, Christian mysticism, vitalism, and occultism — that marked the late 19th century. As such, he is a key figure for intellectual historians and particularly for scholars of cultural modernism, so much of which was inspired by this whirlpool of ideas.
Given to religious experiences from a young age, Steiner wrote a thesis on Fichte’s German Idealism before taking a post as editor of Goethe’s scientific writings. Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche invited him to prepare the first collected edition of her brother’s writings; although Steiner ultimately declined, a meeting with the then-paralytic philosopher, left a lasting impression. Later came his immersion in the Theosophical movement, a syncretic spiritual venture combining elements of Eastern religions, Neoplatonism, and occultism. With the blessing of its British leader Annie Besant, Steiner promoted Theosophy on the continent until doctrinal differences with Besant and her ally Charles Leadbetter prompted the conception of his own belief system in 1912.
Anthroposophy provided a programme for self-cultivation in terms of mind, body and spirit which attracted a dedicated following across the continent. The wide impact of these idea was clear in Steiner’s own time and, despite the Nazi party’s hostility to Steiner’s considerable sway, persists to the present day – not least through the still-practicing network of ‘Steiner schools’. The educational theory behind these institutions was first set out in Steiner's 1922 lecture series at Mansfield College, Oxford, delivered on the invitation of Professor Millicent Mackenzie, which led directly to the founding of the first ‘Waldorf schools’ (as they were originally known) in Britain.
All this makes Steiner deserving of close scholarly attention. Indeed, Crispian Villeneuve’s account of his ‘British Connection’ is clearly moved not just by a deep fascination with the man and the work, but by a conviction that his ideas reveals a truth beyond the merely temporal. Villeneuve (St. John’s, 1968) has a clear investment in Steiner’s cause; as do his publishers, the Temple Lodge Press. Such enthusiasm generates a work of intense, but wayward and wishful, intellectual history.
This book is the sequel to two volumes detailing Steiner’s ten visits to Britain, and considers his reception of British thought in the earlier part of his life. This involves not so much the detection of direct sources as the presentation of a general patterning of ideas. The work begins with biographical details of Steiner’s youth and education, registering the influence of teachers such as Karl Julius Schroer and Edmund Reitlinger. Using Steiner's autobiography to trace his early reading, Villeneuve devotes much attention to Reitlinger’s wide-ranging treatise entitled Freie Blicke, while brief references to Tacitus or Darwin prompt digressive discussions of their work.
There is much of value here: Darwin’s impact on fin de siècle notions of spiritual evolution is clear and merits consideration. Much is made of Reitlinger’s appreciation of William Whewell, a proponent of Francis Bacon’s ideas. Here a larger structure becomes apparent. Rather than limiting himself to identifying British influences, Villeneuve seeks to trace a larger polarity in Steiner’s thinking between two sets of ideas, one Baconian, the other Goethean. Thus Whewell, despite only briefly appearing in Steiner’s writing, is discussed over two chapters which consist largely of quotations from primary sources.
Perhaps more understandable is the study of Steiner’s edition of Goethe, but the mass of unexpurgated quotations here is formidable. Villeneuve reproduces Steiner’s footnotes, translated for the first time, together with relevant snippets of Goethe. Although an impressive scholarly exercise, no doubt useful for specialists, the result reads less as a discursive treatment of Steiner as the accession of obscure corners of his thinking. The lack of authorial comment often leaves the reader uncertain of what conclusion to draw; the work might be better read, then, as a collage of textes trouvés in the modernist fashion.
Ezra Pound’s Cantos came to mind in the purposeful juxtaposition of disparate but contemporaneous texts without elucidating commentary. Indeed, like Pound's work, it might be best read by a somewhat mystical light. Villeneuve has produced a work of great energy and enthusiasm and is to be admired for its infectious tenacity in tracing the sparks of exchange between numerous key contributors to a rich intellectual moment. The author explains his method of presentation without apology, and the true value of his diligence will best be measured by fellow Steinerians. For general readers with an appreciation for and interest in Steiner's significance as an educationalist and a son of Modernism, this remains rare meat.