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Rudolf Steiner: A Biographical Introduction for Farmers

By Hilmar Moore
Originally published in Biodynamics No. 214 (November/December 1997)

When you become interested in biodynamic agriculture, you do not get very far into it before you are confronted with Rudolf Steiner. The sheer productivity of Steiner's life is somewhat daunting: over 6,000 lectures, dozens of books, and innovative approaches to education, the arts, medicine, working with people with special needs. An extensive secondary literature exists, and important work has been done, in each of these fields. And if this were not enough, Steiner provided a methodology for spiritual development.

As Stewart Easton wrote:

If Steiner had been nothing but a philosopher, or theologian, or educator, or authority on Goethe, or agricultural expert, or architect, or knowledgeable in medicinal plants, or dramatist, or gifted artistic innovator, inventor of eurythmy, an age that respects specialization would have reserved a special niche for him. But Steiner was all these things at the same time. (Easton, 9)

By now you may be thinking, "But I just want to do gardening. Tell me how to do that." Then you find out that Steiner developed a specialized language with which to describe his ideas, and his ideas and the techniques which have arisen from them are based on his spiritual experiences. Confronted with all this, you are quite justified in saying, "This is a bit much!"

In these articles, I will provide a frame of reference for understanding biodynamics. More particularly, I will attempt to make the whole nexus of concepts that underlie biodynamics more accessible to those practitioners who seek to go beyond the practice into a deeper understanding, but who for various reasons cannot devote the time it takes to explore in detail the work of Steiner and the people who have followed him. Each article will contain a list of references for further reading. This first article places Steiner's life and work in a larger historical context.

* * *

For someone born in the last quarter of this century, the time and place of Rudolf Steiner's birth must seem almost entirely alien to their own times. He was born in 1861 at Kraljevec, which, at that time, was on the border of Hungary and Croatia, a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His father, Johann, was station master on the Southern Austrian Railroad, which had just been constructed between Vienna and Trieste on the Adriatic Sea. His parents thus lived far from their place of birth in Austria. His mother, Franziska, had been a maid in service to Count Hoyos and his father descended from a long line of gamekeepers for the Hoyos family. When they wanted to marry, the Count refused permission, so they left their ancestral positions and sought employment elsewhere.

This points us to a key for Steiner's childhood. On the one hand, the areas in which he grew up were little changed from the Middle Ages. On the other, he was exposed to the most modern influences. As he said, If anyone were to prepare himself for a very modern life, for one surrounded by the most modern achievements of the present, and if he were to choose to this end the corresponding conditions of life for his present incarnation, I think he would have had to make the choice which Rudolf Steiner made for his present incarnation. For he was surrounded from the beginning by the most recent achievements of civilization, by railway and telegraph, from the first hour of his earthly life. Yet he also found himself in the mountains, among peasants whose way of life stretched unchanged into past centuries. "[These mountains] can leave a deep mark on the soul of a child ... in the distance I could see the Styrian mountains glistening in the glorious sunshine and frequently covered by the most wonderful snowfields ... one of the most beautiful sites in Austria."

The peasants still maintained somewhat a clairvoyant perception of nature, and their cultural life was intimately related to the changing of the seasons and the tasks linked to what Steiner later called "the breathing of the earth." The young boy had a pronounced clairvoyant ability, but he soon learned that he could not speak of his experiences with anyone because they would ridicule his comments as superstitious.

As Henry Barnes writes in a new biography, "That the boy lived in two worlds of experience is of decisive significance: an inner world of supersensible perception and an outer world of everyday experience." For Rudolf as a child the surrounding nature, which he loved, was alive with elemental beings. From an early age he was also able to follow the further journeys of those who had died. The world of nonphysical perception was more real to him than the one that spoke through his bodily senses, and he assumed that this was also true for others.

He soon learned that this was not the case, however, for when he spoke matter-of-factly of these experiences, he was met with disbelief, embarrassment, and often ridicule. The boy thus learned to keep silent about his inner perceptions. This "keeping silent" was a characteristic of Rudolf Steiner's life well into his adult years, when ... he finally met contemporaries who wanted to share this reality of his experience. (Barnes, 25)

Johann Steiner, perhaps befitting someone who consciously left his ancestral homeland, was a free-thinker, interested in the current ideas of the day. In Europe, promising students at the age of 11 had to select either a technical-scientific path of study, leading to a scientific institute, or a classical humanistic course, leading to a university training. Johann chose the scientific course of study for his son.

Inexorably, the industrialized nations were shifting from agrarian to industrial economies and the population moved from rural to urban life. Steiner's family moved along the railroad ever closer to Vienna, one of the cultural centers of the world. Each move provided Steiner with a better educational opportunity, and closer to the modern world. By the time he was 18, in 1879, the Steiner family moved near Vienna, so that Rudolf could attend the Technical Institute, then one of the foremost scientific universities in the world. It was typical of Steiner, however, that these studies did not occupy all his time, for he attended nearly as many courses at the University of Vienna as he did at the Institute.

To summarize, we can find a number of interesting parallels in Steiner's early life. He grew up in quite rural areas, but the railroad station and telegraph kept the most modern people and events close to his consciousness. He had a richly clairvoyant life which he could not share with others. His mind wrestled with the deepest philosophical questions and he read such philosophers as Kant while in high school, but his outer course of study was science and technology. By the time he entered his collegiate years, he was interested in finding a way to bridge the deep chasm between the worlds of inner and outer perception, between the conceptual framework of the sciences, philosophy, and the doctrines of religion.

* * *

It was a blessing that at this time, he met a most unusual man on his daily train rides into Vienna. Felix Kogutski was a licensed herb-gatherer who sold medicinal plants to the city's pharmacies and the botanical department at the medical school. Many readers will know that most medicines at that time were plant-based. At last, here was a man with whom Steiner could speak of his spiritual experiences to one who seemed "a soul from ancient times," and a last representative of "an instinctive clairvoyance of an earlier era." He wrote:

It was possible to talk about the spiritual world with him as with someone who had his own experiences of it. ... He revealed himself as though he, as a personality, were only the voice for a spiritual content that wished to speak out of hidden worlds. When you were with him you could get deep glimpses into the secrets of nature. ... According to the usual conception of "learning," you would have to say that you couldn't "learn" anything from this man. But if you yourself were able to perceive a spiritual world, you could obtain very deep glimpses into this world through someone who had a firm footing there. Moreover, anything fantastic or illusory was utterly foreign to the man. (The Course of My Life, 42-43)

Felix Kogutski seems to me sort of a "patron saint" of biodynamics. His appearance in Steiner's life led to important developments, as if he were a signpost from an ancient spirituality to the roots of a new approach to the spirit, just as Felix himself brought his medicinal plants from the country into one of the world's leading cities.

While a student, Steiner became the editor of the scientific writings of J. W. von Goethe, one of the world's greatest poets, but increasing known as a pioneer in the organic sciences. It was in Goethe's work that he found a link upon which he could begin to build his own approach. It is crucial for us to understand that Steiner was not content with having his own clairvoyant experiences. He felt "a burning need which became a dominant theme of his first 30 years" to be able to find the unseen spiritual world within the seen physical world, and to be able to lead others on this path. In all the writing and speaking that he did until 1900, he sought to grapple with nature "in order to acquire a point of view with regard to the world of spirit which confronted me in self-evident perception. I said to myself that it is possible after all to come to and understanding of the experience of the spiritual world through one's soul only if one's process of thinking has reached such a form that it can attain to the reality of being which is in the phenomena of nature." (The Course of My Life, 24; my emphasis)

We cannot go farther here into the philosophical underpinnings of Steiner's work, but I think it is most important to note the emphasis he placed on increasing the power of thinking as a tool for spiritual development because it runs quite counter to many approaches to spiritual development. But anyone who works seriously out of biodynamics for a while will notice that unusual demands are placed upon one's inner life. For example, through physical chemistry we can understand the role that nitrogen plays in plant growth. But Steiner rarely refers to that; rather, he speaks of the nitrogen process. Can you visualize the growth of a plant over and again until you can move from the static picture of plant growth of orthodox botany so that your imagination can follow a plant from seed to seed stage in a living way? And in doing so, can you visualize clearly how nitrogen works in this unfolding? Can you follow nitrogen in its path from the atmosphere into the soil and plant and back again? Can you do the same for potassium, silica, sulfur, or calcium? It is this flexibility and strengthening of our soul that Steiner thought was required biodynamic work. That he provided a path for the development of such new soul qualities may be his greatest contribution to humanity.

* * *

This leads us to an additional consideration, which is the cultural dimension of biodynamics. I have tried to show that the world in which Rudolf Steiner lived is quite different than our world, but it is similar in some ways, too. One similarity is that older cultures continue to fall under the sway of newer ones. Many readers will confess to computer phobia. Even e-mail is beyond you, much less desktop publishing, research on the Internet, web page production, and even the most simple programming. But computers represent a much different picture for your children. They take to it, and other such esoteric matters as programming your VCR, with the same ease with which you worked on your car as a teenager, adjust a cultivator, or overhaul a diesel tractor engine today. As I write, there are over 90,000 jobs available for "computer nerds," and only 20,000 people to fill them. Yet daily in Texas where I live, we see hundreds of immigrants from Mexico and further south coming into this country with little more than an elementary school education. And this is only one example of an older and a newer culture meeting. One group thrives, another group falls by the wayside, becomes technologically "superfluous."

In Steiner's time, a similar situation existed. The rural peasantry into which he was born virtually vanished in his lifetime, to become the industrial proletariat the industrial working class. The old culture was based on nature; the new culture on the machine and industrial processes. Realizing that these people were ripped out of an ancient culture and placed into a new life, he readily agreed when he was asked in the 1890's, to teach at the Worker's College in Berlin which was sponsored by the Socialist Worker's Party. He taught for seven years there and presented two subjects: public speaking and history.

A little thought may tell you why he chose these subjects. Here were people whose culture in no way related to the present situation. The middle class had commercial and educational opportunities and the upper class had many advantages it still enjoys today, but the workers were bereft no training, no education, and no culture to sustain them. Steiner taught them public speaking so that they would learn to express themselves verbally, which also requires learning to think in an orderly and sequential manner. Without this ability, the workers were totally at the mercy of propagandists and managers. That our schools do not teach people to think or speak clearly today leaves most of us at the same disadvantage! He taught history because if we do not know where we have come from, we cannot see where we are going and we do not know who we are. Here are two absolutely basic human needs: to be able to ask, "Who am I?" and to express myself to others. Rudolf Steiner's tenure at the Worker's College ended when party officials realized that he based his history lectures on the sanctity of the human individuality and its evolution and not on fostering class consciousness, and that teaching the workers to think clearly stood in the way of the "dictatorship of the proletariat," a term much loved by Marxists, which means that you can stir up ignorant workers to do whatever you want them to do, but you (meaning party officials) remain firmly in control. His courses there were very popular and he sometimes spoke to several thousand people as special events.

* * *

By 1902, when he turned forty-two, Rudolf Steiner had enjoyed a successful career as an editor of important editions of the work of Goethe and Nietzsche, as a philosopher, a critic, and editor of a prestigious cultural magazine, and he had met many of the important figures of the time. But he had felt it necessary to remain silent about his inner life, his clairvoyant abilities, and what he considered to be his mission in life, which was to contribute to a cultural renewal which would bring art, science, and religion together in a new way. In that year, he was invited for the first time to speak of spiritual matters. In a very brief time, his abilities were recognized by many people. He began to publish books on spiritual topics, he was invited to lecture throughout Europe, and soon he was the leader of a spiritual movement. All the things he is known for today were established in the remaining twenty-three years of his life.

For biodynamic practitioners, it is helpful to look back at his childhood and early career to pick up the theme of cultural renewal. Renewal often implies destruction, doesn't it? An annual plant, for example, begins to die during seed formation. I don't think it is too farfetched to think of Biodynamics as a renewal of the ancient peasants' culture, of a blending of the best of an older consciousness and a newer one.

Toward the end of his life when he gave the agricultural lectures, Steiner looked back to the peasants. In a discussion after they had stirred the horn manure he said:

I grew up entirely out of the peasant folk, and in my spirit I have always remained there. ... I myself planted potatoes, and though I did not breed horses, at any rate I helped to breed pigs. And in the farmyard ... I lent a hand with the cattle. These things were absolutely near my life for a long time; I took part in them most actively. Thus I am at any rate lovingly devoted to it, for I grew up in the midst of it myself, and there is far more of that in me than the little bit of 'stirring the manure' just now. Therefore I beg you to consider me as the small peasant farmer who a conceived a real love for farming; one who remembers his small peasant farm and who thereby, perhaps, can understand what lives in the peasantry, in the farmers and yeomen of our agricultural life.

For I have always had the opinion ... that [the peasants'] alleged stupidity or foolishness is wisdom before God, that is to say, before the Spirit. I have always considered what the peasants and farmers thought about their things far wiser than what the scientists were thinking. ... I have always been glad when I could listen to such things, for I have always found them extremely wise, while, as to science in its practical effects and conduct I have found it very stupid. This is what we at Dornach are striving for, and this will make our science wise will make it wise precisely through the so-called 'peasant stupidity.' We shall take pains at Dornach to carry a little of this peasant stupidity into our science, then this stupidity will become Wisdom before God.

If you look into these lectures, there is a stunning description of how the oldtime farmers walked across their fields and sensed, through the nitrogen, the conditions there. It was as if the nitrogen was a connection between the farmer and the elemental beings of the earth, air, water, and warmth of the soil, plants and animals. We can ask ourselves how far from this older consciousness we are today. As Steiner put it:

When I was a young man I had the idea to write a kind of "peasants' philosophy," setting down the conceptual life of the peasants in all the things that touch their lives. It might have been very beautiful. An absolute wisdom would have emerged, the statement of the Count [Count Keyserlinck, who hosted the conference] that peasants are stupid, would have been refuted. A subtle wisdom would have emerged a philosophy contained in the very formation of the words. One marvels to see how much the peasant knows of what is going on in Nature. Today, however, it would no longer be possible to write a peasants' philosophy. These things have been almost entirely lost. It is no longer as it was forty or fifty years ago. Yet it was wonderfully significant; you could learn far more from peasants than from the University. ... It was a kind of cultural philosophy.

I've often thought that was a scathing indictment of university learning from one who had seen the best universities in the world! Yet, to go back to an earlier stage of development was never a goal for Rudolf Steiner. Always he sought to develop, out of an older form, something entirely new. He did not contemplate a return to the feudal system out of which the peasantry came, nor did he wish to ignore the gains of agricultural science or a scientific education. He wanted farmers, scientists, and commercial interests to form new relationships, and for farmers to develop new faculties of consciousness. Perhaps most importantly, he did not think that food grown on increasingly impoverished soil could provide the inner sustenance that is needed for spiritual activity.

Perhaps more than any other realm of activity, agriculture has been torn forcefully and irrevocably from the culture from which it originally came. But it is, in another way, only one of many activities upon which our lives depend that now exist in a manner that is light-years apart from the cultural matrix in which they originated. It was the life work of Rudolf Steiner to provide the roots of a totally new culture. I have always felt it to be tragic that so revolutionary a figure has been so obscured by the sheer quantity of information he produced! It's sort of like side-dressing a young plant but covering it with the manure. In the correct amount the side-dressing would be life-enhancing, but too much can smother the plant.

Some of the most learned, dedicated individuals in the world have spent nearly a century trying to understand, practice, and develop further Steiner's immense contributions. Yet the message behind them is quite simple and can be found in the Book of Revelation: "Behold, I make all things new." That was Rudolf Steiner's purpose in all that he did, to plant the seeds, provide the foundation, for a cultural renewal. He knew, perhaps better than we do, that the renewal that he called for, that he worked for so desperately, would require a very different basis of nutrition than can ever be achieved through chemical farming. So it all demands new approaches: to science, to our inner development, to our relation to nature, to our handling of manures and composts, to creating preparations that but for our efforts, would never exist naturally.

That's who Rudolf Steiner was: a prophet of renewal.

Further Reading

Barnes, Henry. A Life for the Spirit: Rudolf Steiner in the Crosscurrents of Our Time. (Anthroposophic Press, 1997).
This book is the most accessible general biography available today. It is beautifully and lovingly written by a master historian.

Easton, Stewart. Rudolf Steiner: Herald of A New Epoch. (Anthroposophic Press, 1982).
An excellent work.

Steiner, Rudolf. Spiritual Foundations for the Renewal of Agriculture. (Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association, 1993).

Steiner, Rudolf. Autobiography: Chapter in the Course of My Life. (Anthroposophic Press, 1951).
Filled with names of people, most of whom you may not know, with sharply drawn portraits of places and encounters with people, and with amazing glimpses into this remarkable man's soul as it developed from early childhood until 1907.