Detail from “The School of Athens” by Raphael
“The connection to the spirit breaks when beauty does not hold it together.
Beauty binds the ‘I’ to the body.”
— Rudolf Steiner, from the notebooks, 1918
Christiane Haid, Ph.D. is the leader of the Section for the Literary arts and Humanities of the School for Spiritual Science at the Goetheanum in Dornach, Switzerland.
In this essay from 2017, Christiane Haid addresses the Question: “What is the Significance and the Work of the Section for the Literary Arts and Humanities?”
Dr. Haid presented this essay in Montreal, Canada at a meeting of the North American Section of the Literary Arts and Humanities of the School for Spiritual Science.
The humanities or the literary arts and humanities—that means such subjects as literature, history of art, cultural studies, aesthetics, philosophy, ethnology, and languages—are being cut back or cut out altogether by universities in Europe, and I presume the same thing is happening in North America, while scientific and technical subjects are being promoted. There is a major theme here: the value and significance o the humanities are being questioned while economic constraints are making themselves felt more and more strongly.
We might gain the impression from this that the pragmatic side of life is asserting itself more and more, and that the intrinsic value of art and culture as an instrument in the education and development of humanity is being recognized and understood less and less.
In her book Cultivating Humanity (Harvard University Press 1997), Martha Nussbaum speaks out strongly on behalf of an approach to education based on the classical discovery of the roots of humanity in the face of a growing neo-liberal technocracy. An engagement with literature and philosophy can lead to the development of three abilities that have classical sources:
- Socratic self-examination that we might understand as leading an examined life
- Cosmopolitanism or, according to Diogenes, fostering world citizenship
- Mastering the narrative imagination (Aristotle’s Poetics)
At the beginning of the twentieth century, when Rudolf Steiner established the School of Spiritual Science at the Christmas Conference of 1923-24, he also set up a Section for the Literary Arts and Humanities (the name in German translates to “Beautiful Sciences.”) His intention was to re-enliven
“a branch [of spiritual life] that had been driven into a corner, something which would have disastrous consequences for civilization.”
He gave Albert Steffen, a Swiss poet and writer, responsibility for the new Section. Steffen had only just turned forty, but he had already acquired a reputation as a young Swiss writer.
In 1923, Steiner related the humanities to the belles lettres of the eighteenth century, and he characterized them as a discipline which
“. . . has brought beauty, aesthetics and the artistic into human knowledge.”
Over and above this, it was essential to him for the Section to build a bridge between the sciences and the arts:
“There was once an imagination of what the humanities were. They created the bridge between the actual sciences and the works of humanity’s creative imagination.”
The humanities link art and science; the two work together in the creative faculties of individual human beings. Steiner saw the work of the Section in association with an idealism that in Goethe’s time was still taken for granted; in idealism, the spiritual was still a reality. The materialism that emerged at the beginning of the nineteenth century caused this cultural stream to disappear.
To develop a science of beauty—this is what the expression die schöne Wissenschaften means—requires, according to Friedrich Schiller, a neo-Classical German poet and playwright, an aesthetic education for humanity. At its highest level, this becomes ethics. In the bridge linking science and art that primarily consists in words, an unspoken process lifts human beings onto the level of humanism and of a culture that educates and forms; they have thus raised themselves above materialistic, competitive, and utilitarian thinking.
This way of thinking is more relevant than ever if we consider the historical events of the twentieth century in Europe, Russia, China and Africa—including the dictatorships and genocides—and the challenges of the twenty-first century, which include globalization, the development and spread of technology, digitalization, wars and social misery. Literature and philosophy have offered and still offer extraordinarily effective ways of digesting and developing an in-depth understanding of the phenomena of the times we are living in.
Rudolf Steiner devoted many years of his life to the question of the relationship between science and art. While he was working as the editor of Goethe’s scientific works in Weimar, Goethe’s writings showed him how fruitfully these two disciplines might integrate and collaborate:
“Art was for him—Goethe—one revelation of the archetypal law of the world, science the other. Art and science had the same origins, came from the same source. While the researcher dives down into the depths of reality to be able to express its driving forces in the form of thoughts, the artist strives to integrate them into his material.”
— Rudolf Steiner
I would like now to address two core themes for the humanities, the first of which is the significance of beauty for the development of a new aesthetics; the second is language.
At the end, I would like to give you a picture of the current activities in which the Section for the Humanities at the Goetheanum is engaged.
Beauty / “What Weaves Between . . .”
A statement found in one of Rudolf Steiner’s notebooks from 1918 may serve here as a motto of sorts:
“The connection to the spirit breaks when beauty does not hold it together. Beauty binds the ‘I’ to the body.”
— Rudolf Steiner
My starting point today, then, is the connection to the spirit; this will also continue to be the subject. Beauty acts as an intermediary between the human ‘I’ and the physical body, it conveys the experience of the spirit to human beings. We could also say that if human beings cannot experience beauty, they will lose their connection to the spirit.
In yesterday’s lecture on Goethe’s Faust, the theme of beauty arises in Faust’s encounter with the character of Helen. Faust’s experience of beauty is both physical and spiritual; we can say that it is both sense-perceptible and spiritual and leads to an experience of his higher ‘I.’
What Steiner means here by beauty is not only concerned with the surface appearance, the classical ideals of truth and goodness play a role in it.
In this sense, beauty is a correspondence between the inner and the outer, beauty is a totality, a wholeness, is therefore both truthful and good at the same time.
As philosophy is the love of wisdom, so love of truth expresses itself in beauty by being expression of human beings’ inner worlds. We find the good in the love of actively bringing about truth in the world.
Friedrich Schiller, the German poet already mentioned, expresses this connection between beauty and truth in the following words:
“We strive to make beauty the mediator of truth, and to give beauty a permanent foundation and a higher dignity with the help of truth.”
“Goethe as the Founder of a New Science of Aesthetics”
Rudolf Steiner’s work on Goethe’s writings led him to lay the foundation of a new aesthetics, the potency and significance of which has remained almost undiscovered until today.
His approach was different to those found in German Idealism, all of which speak of the appearance of the divine—this means the work of art—in sense-perceptible clothing when describing an artistic process; or rather, when translated into more everyday language, of the realization or implementation of an idea which is then transformed int a work of art.
Steiner, on the other hand, takes his starting point from earthly matter, be it stone, language or color: the artist and the creative process lift it into the realm of the ideal, into the sphere of the divine.
“The beautiful is appearance only, because it conjures up a reality in front of us which presents itself as an ideal world.”
The artist raises matter into the sphere of the spirit, which now appears with a spiritual radiance, and is therefore beautiful.
The artist here is not only the one who realizes an idea, but he raises matter to the spirit by means of the creative process and gives it its ideal radiance. The human being thus raises and spiritualizes the sense-perceptible. Steiner continues in the same direction:
“Sense reality in art is transfigured by appearing as if it were spirit. In this sense creating art is no imitation of something that already exists but a continuation of the world process which has arisen in the human soul. Merely imitating the natural can no more create something new than depicting spirit that is already present.”
It is decisive in this approach to aesthetics that human beings are spiritually active and productive in the world and that their activities contribute to add something to the world process, for without them this same world process would not come into existence.
The aesthetics of the future demonstrate that it is one of the tasks of humanity to bring beauty into the world, to spiritualize matter with their creative activities and to elevate it. This is the one activity that will enable humanity to discover and fulfil their essential need for purpose and the shaping and structuring of the world.
Whether the abilities lie in the field of poetry, painting, eurythmy or sculpture, well, that is a matter for everyone to discover: there is an artist in every human being, whether the artist is a practicing one or an art lover!
If we are to understand the new aesthetics presented here, the creative artist stands in a real relationship to the spirit of the world, that means that he or she creates original works of art, and it is his or her responsibility to undertake a journey of transformation of his or her working material, to spiritualize it, whether that be words in poetry, colors in painting or the formative process in sculpture. A spiritual schooling as is given in anthroposophy is indispensable for this work.
Language and the Word
I would like to now turn to the second theme, of language and literature and to help us to find the right mood for this I want to read you a poem by Dag Hammarskjöld, a Norwegian poet who was General Secretary to the United Nations from the beginning of 1950s.
Darkness lit up by
Seeking its counterpart
Striving for liberation
In a word
How seldom growth and blossom
How seldom fruit
— Dag Hammarskjöld, translated by Leif Sjöberg and W.H. Auden
You will all, I hope, sense that these words are used in a way that we do not use them in our daily life. If we spend time with such a poem, we experience qualities in it that lift us above our everyday existence. The soul feels that it has been retuned and touched by a different reality.
It may give us food for thought or even shock us when we realize that language has this exceptional quality: that it can express—at one extreme—an execution order or—at the other—lies of all kinds. As we so often experience in the current political situation, it is extremely difficult to differentiate between the lies and the truth when politicians feel no sort of obligation to tell the truth.
Words became ever more questionable, unreliable, under the totalitarian aberrations o the twentieth century, for example under Fascism, National Socialism or Stalinism.
Words acquired a magical dimension when technological developments meant that they could be reproduced and therefore used to manipulate the masses. If Hitler’s speeches had not been broadcast on the radio, National Socialism would never have been even imaginable. Thanks to the new media, words have developed an unsuspected ability to violate and oppress; people in the main have been at their mercy.
We may observe similar phenomena that threaten democracy in the current political developments in the USA and in other parts of the world and note the way that social networks have been and still are misused. Opinions of non-existent individuals are artificially created by means of internet bots, also known as web robots. The USA elections last year and the UK’s decision to leave the EU were influenced in this way.
This decay, distortion, oppression, and violation of words are also linked to our relationship to the source of language, which has been in decline for some time. It is therefore important today to consciously recognize and look after this source and to make it accessible again.
When we speak of the word today, what we say does not generally contain an awareness of what the relationship of the individual speaking or writing is to the word or, indeed, words, unless that relationship is a professional one. We use words, we may even foster or take care of them by practicing how we speak; when someone else does not keep his or her word, then this may well be a painful experience.
In the science of language, or linguistics, as well as in our general understanding, words are mainly seen as linguistic signs or bearers of information. The notations make it plain that we are not dealing with the naming of a living being but only with a sign—or letter that no longer has a relationship to something living. What we have is either a sign, something that points to this, or a carrier of information, which conveys something of what is unachievable or unreachable, but is not the thing itself. This has not always been the case.
If we look back into the past, to Ancient Greece before the emergence of philosophy, or to mediaeval Europe, then the word still had a magical power. People still experienced that the language of the gods lived on in myths and the magical power of words was still present in spells.
In Genesis—the story of creation in the Bible—there is even mention of the fact that God breathes the breath of life into man. In the New Testament, Christ is described in the Gospel of St. John as the Word Who Has Become Flesh. He has incarnated as the Logos or Word and has become a human being on earth. We can sense in these expressions the vast dimensions contained within words at that time.
In his autobiography The Course of My Life, Rudolf Steiner mentions two dangers threatening the word in the age of the consciousness soul; his artistic work with Marie Steiner led him to discover them. According to Rudolf Steiner’s understanding of history, the age of the consciousness soul is the period in which we are now living; it began in 1413, the beginning of the modern age, and goes on until 3200.
Please pay attention to which level or layer of words is at the center of the following depiction given by Rudolf Steiner:
“The word is in danger from two directions which have to do with the consciousness soul. It serves both communication in social life and the expression of intellectual and logical thoughts or insights.”
Words can lose their intrinsic worth from two directions. They must adapt to the meaning that they are to express. They must forget that there is a reality in the tone, in the sound, and even in the forms of the sounds themselves. The beauty, the radiance of the vowel and the characteristic quality of the consonant disappear from language.
The consciousness soul uses words for social communication and to share what has been understood logically, intellectually.
Words have no intrinsic value, nor do they adapt to the meaning.
There is a reality in the tone, the sound and even in the forms of the sounds themselves.
The Vowel: Beauty, Radiance.
The Consonant—the characteristic quality, the form.
“The vowels become soulless, the consonants void of spirit. And so, speech leaves the sphere in which it originates entirely—the sphere of the spiritual. It becomes the servant of intellectual knowledge and of the social life which shuns the spiritual. It is thus snatched wholly out of the sphere of art.”
True spiritual perception falls as if wholly from instinct into the “experience of the word.” It becomes experienced in the soul, in the toning of the vowels and in the spiritually empowered colors of the consonants. It attains to an understanding of the secret of the evolution of speech. This secret consists in the fact that divine spiritual beings could once speak to the human soul by means of the word, whereas now the word serves only to make oneself understood in the physical world.”
— Rudolf Steiner, The Course of My Life, Chapter 3
Rudolf Steiner is looking here at a layer of language which we do not encounter in our everyday experience. We probably rarely experience language as imbued with spirit, or only in special moments during artistic events.
Hans Georg Gadamer and Hermeneutics
I have already indicated something of the present understanding of what words are: that they are carriers of information, that they consist merely of linguistic signs. This thought has its roots in the philosophy of Plato and is addressed in Cratylus, one of his dialogues.
The understanding that a word is only a name and does not represent or depict true being was first found in Greek philosophy. In the past, words and things were an indivisible unity, as is expressed in the opening verses of the Gospel according to St. John.
Here is precisely where we find the origin of the sign theory on which our current understanding of language is based. The understanding has gradually emerged that the word is simply something like a tool. It is only a mediator of a contents but has, as a living being itself, nothing to do with the being of this contents.
At this point I would very much like to present to you a central thought of one of the most important German philosophers of the twentieth century: his name is Hans Georg Gadamer. Hans Georg Gadamer, the founder of what is known as universal hermeneutics, a theory of understanding, discussed questions of understanding and language in his main work, Truth and Method, published in 1960.
Referring to the work of Thomas Aquinas, Gadamer suggests a way to understand the connection between the word and being as it is defined by the Christian idea of incarnation. He describes this in the following way:
“The greatest miracle regarding human speech does not lie in the fact that the Word becomes flesh and takes on an outer or physical being, but that what appears and expresses itself in the expression is always the word.
“That the Word is with God and has been for all eternity . . .
“The human relationship between thinking and speaking corresponds nevertheless in its complete imperfection to the divine relationship of the Holy Trinity. The inner word of the spirit is as co-essential to thinking as God the Son is to God the Father.”
Gadamer is looking here at the Word becoming flesh from the perspective of language. He is pointing to the fact that the Christ event, as it were, has made something visible and understandable that has always been there: that the whole world has been created by the Divine Word.
A divine potential lives in human beings which can be realized if they perceive this divinity in language and then make it real for themselves.
Gadamer has, as it were, tacitly put paid to the sign theory by suggesting that the incarnation of Christ has made possible the renewed connection between the word and being, that this event has created an indivisible unity. Or we could also say that Gadamer has pointed to a potential for development which human beings can realize as speaking beings if they can recognize their true Logos nature if they can discover the beingness of language and words and through this recognize their own spiritual nature.
This is also the special characteristic of the age of the consciousness soul; the relationship to the spiritual world is no longer God-given but, as we have already found out for aesthetics, it is in the hands of human beings: it is up to them to develop their awareness of their own spiritual nature and of the Logos nature of language.
I would like to make this more specific by saying that in literature this spirit-filled relationship to words has been both a living and existential experience for many poets and writers up to the present. I am thinking of German poets such as Nelly Sachs and Paul Celan, and it would be a wonderful thing to look for other writers in whose works this relationship to words can be discovered.
Line the wordcaves
with panther skins,
widen them, hide-to and hide-fro,
sense-hither and sense-thither,
give them courtyards, chambers, drop doors
and wildnesses, parietal,
and listen for their second
and each time second and second
— Paul Celan, Line the Wordcaves, translated by Pierre Joris
I am aware of a movement that started in England in 2008: it is called Shared Reading, and world literature is regularly read in groups there. People meet in groups to read the work of literature aloud and this is followed by a conversation about the group’s impressions and experiences of the work. Articles have described the healing effects of language and words which go beyond the other positive effects of this initiative in Liverpool, which include addressing the widespread issues of individual loneliness and social isolation.
In everyday life all of us can experience this wonderful mystery of language when we are in conversation with others. When the conversation begins, each one of the speaking partners uses language. What happens during the conversation, however, is entirely open: it may lead to a profound encounter or a terrible experience. In most cases, we simply cannot predict what will happen.
How might those conversations unfold in which we become more and more aware of the Logos by which we have been created as thinking and speaking beings? Might that not be an antidote to all the lies and distortions put out into the world in words?
We have the tools in our hands and can change the world at any time. One does not have to be a writer; every conversation is a contribution to a change of direction. What we manage to do may begin small, but its impact can grow and develop.
Let us therefore cultivate and foster language with the help of art and our own experiences; let us devote ourselves to literature and poetry, let us pay attention to our speech and to Speech Formation; let us go to and also organize evenings of theatre, poetry, storytelling, readings; let us convey to our children, our friends and to the world at large what a spiritualized language can be for other people: if we do all these things, then we are working on words and, in particular, at spiritualizing words. This also holds true for the written word, of course.
And I am also talking about developing a new ethics for journalism that has at its core the ideals of beauty, truth, and goodness.
Before I conclude my lecture by outlining the current work of the Section for the Literary Arts and Humanities, I would like to round off this part on language by quoting Rudolf Steiner. The quote comes from an esoteric lesson held in 1911 and allows us to experience the significance of the word as Logos.
The individuals who Rudolf Steiner was addressing had all had a longer relationship to anthroposophy and were on an inner path of schooling; they were his esoteric pupils. That is why what he says is rather intimate and direct. And at the end of the quotation, when he speaks of the fact that words sound from within the human being, he is referring to a later developmental step on the path of schooling, when a pupil has achieved such a relationship to the spiritual world that this can begin to speak or sound inside the individual:
“But there is one thing in man that is no mere sensory illusion, that is no maya. This is the word that resounds from men, the living word, the Logos. The word doesn’t come to us from outside, it is something alive in us, it is our real being. It streams out of our soul life; we who let the word stream out over our lips are it ourselves, with all our feelings. And if we stop to think that the word is the Logos and that everything that is spoken in the world is spoken out of this source, we will then feel a deep responsibility towards the word . . . Only what men have said in their words will survive the earth and pass over to the next planetary condition . . . It sounds forth from within and it really comes from within. Divine beings, the Logos, speak to us out of it.”
— Rudolf Steiner
ON THE CURRENT WORK OF THE SECTION FOR THE LITERARY ARTS AND HUMANITIES
AT THE GOETHEANUM AND IN THE WORLD
The work of the Section for the Literary Arts and the Humanities takes place in Dornach at the Goetheanum and in countries with groups of varying sizes; now they are in North America, Finland, Sweden, Great Britain, the Netherlands, and Germany. The Section is also in touch with numerous individuals—authors of all kinds and lecturers—all over Europe.
The Section organizes about 20 conferences a year in Dornach: these are cultural and study conferences on aspects of Rudolf Steiner’s work; conferences on core anthroposophical themes; then, subject-specific colloquia on lyric poetry, on linguistics, on the science of art, on Rudolf Steiner’s language; on the Foundation Stone meditation; on anthroposophical research methodology; on fairy tales; on something called sympoetising, when poets and authors meet to share and discuss each other’s work.
Another major field of the Section’s activity is the Goetheanum Publishing House, der Verlag am Goetheanum; it publishes all the work of the Sections in all fields and on all subjects as the publishing organ or arm of the School of Spiritual Science. The Goetheanum Publishing House publishes 25 to 30 books a year.
Research and Practical Contributions
As a Section dedicated to the How, to the way in which science and art are practiced, its work is divided into four strands:
- The first is work on questions of scientific methodology which aims to establish the significance of Rudolf Steiner’s works as a holistic and integral science for the twenty-first century, whilst considering other concepts of science. This occurs in study conferences, colloquia, and publications.
- The second is the exploration and sharing of our cultural past, which includes the cultures of the mystery centers and other highly developed civilizations; then, the investigation of history; of the creation myths and sacred texts; of religions; of philosophy as well as the art and architecture of all ages, from the perspective of the development of human consciousness and identity. These subjects, this material, serve as a mirror in which humanity can learn to know itself in the course of history as part of its process of self-discovery. These activities are the preconditions for an understanding of foreign backgrounds, of different attitudes or ways of thinking; individual ways of being and cultural and spiritual developments; without these it will not be possible to either understand the present or give form and shape to the future. Such questions and themes are addressed in cultural conferences and publications.
- Engaging with literature and poetry constitutes the creative and productive third part of the Section’s activities. On the one hand, we offer a space for those working creatively with literature to exchange and share their work (writers’ meetings). On the other, the presentation of literary works has an important role in our activities. A purpose-free space, which makes no utilitarian demands on anyone, and in which individuals can begin to live in an inner world of images created by both language and the individuals themselves, is of central importance for the development of an individual’s identity and sense of self at any age. Literature expands personal horizons and facilitates encounters with foreign places, different lifestyles, individual experiences, ethical values, and social situations. The Section’s activities in this strand include conferences on specific poets and writers, poetry evenings, readings, and publications.
Understanding what is foreign or other and strengthening one’s own identity—not by means of isolating oneself but by empathetic understanding and by building connections—play a prominent role in this age of globalization and digitalization. This is also about researching the ethical and moral effects of literary texts on how the organs of the soul and spirit form and develop. As it has done for thousands of years, literature can make an essential contribution to a humanizing process in the form of life-long learning that today takes place more at an individual level and can also guide culture in a more general sense to an existential, meaningful, purpose-imbued, and therefore transformative experience. A current research project, which has at the same time an educational aspect is on the theme of Literature as an Instrument in Humanization: Encountering the Self and Building Community.
- A fourth field of activity is language with all its different layers. Originally, it was effective as the creative power of the logos, today it serves as a conveyer of information and communication tool in social life. We are examining the development of the understanding of words and language from Plato up to today the sound and tonal aspects of language are a subject for exploration. In addition, we want to investigate language as a creative entity and examine it from the perspective of the powers at work within it and in the world. Cultivating language, the art of lecturing, competency in conversation, all these need our attention, both in oral and written form. The material for these fields of research is artistic and scientific; we are concerned with a unity of form and content and want to develop a new ethics that reaches into the field of journalism. These ethical ideals are truth of expression, beauty in the form and good in its effects.
It would be an excellent thing if the work of the Section for the Literary Arts and Humanities in North America could grow and develop in such a way that it is able to make a powerful contribution to the future of the work of the Section globally.
I would like to close this lecture by quoting Rudolf Steiner—again! It summarizes the themes I have been addressing today from quite a different perspective; it again sheds new light on the connection between art and science and gives perspectives for the future:
“. . . we would rekindle in mankind something like a unification, a harmony, between art and science. For only thus can the soul, fired by feeling, strengthened by the best in our will, imbue every aspect of human culture with that singleness of vision which will lead human beings up again into the divine heights of their existence, while. at the same time permeating the most commonplace actions of everyday life. Then what we call profane life will become holy, for it is only profane because its connection with the divine source of all existence has been forgotten.”
— Rudolf Steiner, from the lecture cycle Wonders of the World
Editor’s Note: For further discussion of the History of the Section of the Literary Arts and Humanities in North America, click this sentence.