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Rudolf Steiner and Guido von List

Rudolf Steiner and Guido von List

Guido von List (1848-1919) was a Viennese author and proponent of Aryanism. Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke describes him as "the first popular writer to combine völkisch[1] ideology with occultism and theosophy". (Goodrick-Clarke  33)

Steiner's anthroposophy bears some resemblance to Blavatsky's theosophy, and List mixed theosophy with a völkisch ideology. For superficial critics, it was not difficult to see in Steiner, a leading German-speaking proponent of a branch of theosophy, similarities to Guido von List. This is what happened in 1917 when Max Dessoir, a professor of philosophy at the University of Berlin, published a book titled "Vom Jenseits der Seele. Die Gehimwissenschaften in kritischer Betrachtung" (From the Far Side of the Soul. A Critical look at the Occult Sciences). While the book covered much ground, parts were highly critical of Steiner and his work. Steiner published a lengthy response in his own book "Vom Seelenrätzelen" (Riddles of the Soul) later that same year. In one part of his disagreement with the criticism of Max Dessoir, Steiner writes:

Fundamentally Dessoirs criticism is nothing else than numerous "retorts" directed against the Anthroposophy that I represent. With him debates are useless because he does not actually criticize that which he purports to judge, but rather he criticizes an arbitrarily formed and distorted image thereof that he has created. Criticizing this is then quite easy for him. To me it seems entirely impossible that someone who understands what I represent - what Anthroposophy is to me - could equate it - as Dessoir does - with a literary knee-jerk burlesque such as the Faust books of J. A. Louvier, or with the peculiar racialist mysticism of Guido List, or with Christian Science - or indeed with anything that Dessoir designates "neo-Buddhism". (Steiner GA21 74)

List's work is tossed off as "racialist mysticism" and Steiner cannot imagine how Anthroposophy as he presents it could possibly be confused with such a thing. Expanding on that thought in a lecture that same year, Steiner said:

"Then [Dessoir] brings up the racialist mysticism of Guido von List. I have no other relationship with Guido von List beyond the fact that I once, so far as I know, received from him - back when he was a sensible man and had written his novel "Carnuntum" in the beginning of the 1880's - an essay, during the time when I was still publishing "Lucifer-Gnosis"[2]; I sent it back as dilettantish and unusable. That is the only relationship that I have to Guido von List." (Steiner GA176 94)

It is clear that Steiner both knew of the work of Guido von List, and held in them low regard. The first documented expressions of Steiner's contempt for List's work date to 1917. Did Steiner know about List and the Aryans any earlier? In volume 31 of the complete works (titled Essays On Current Events And Culture, 1887-1901) Steiner discusses Müller's linguistic investigations into the Aryan language from a critical standpoint. This demonstrates that Steiner was familiar with the label Aryan as a linguistic concept before the Theosophical period. Given the scope of Steiner's statements on Müller, it is reasonable to infer that Steiner had read broadly on the subject.

In works from the period between 1902 and 1906 the term Aryan comes up in Steiner's books with some frequency,[3] but almost always in the context of Theosophical root races (Blavatsky had named the 5th Root-Race the Aryan). With one exception all of these references are all in books that are reconstructed from listener's notes, and often reconstructed years after the fact. Since these listeners were Theosophists, it is plausible that they may have altered Steiner's formulation to fit their familiar Theosophical schema. After 1906 Steiner stopped talking about Root Races, preferring his own term Cultural Epoch. Steiner's subsequent use of the word Aryan refers to Aryans from a cultural perspective, and is clearly in the context of ethnographic discussions. Such is, for example, the one instance of the adjective "Aryan" in GA 121 - "The Mission of Individual Folk Souls" - where Steiner makes reference to the Aryan peoples of Europe and Asia Minor.

Personally I think that Steiner stopped using the word Aryan because of its misuse among the Ariosophists. Steiner held a position of responsibility within the European Theosophical movement, was by all accounts extraordinarily well read and informed of the developments within the occult fringe, and therefore must have known in detail about List and his ilk earlier than 1917. In dealing with Steiner it is important to note that he avoided whenever possible criticizing others, and especially on points of doctrine. It is clear that he objected to 90% or more of what most Theosophists of his day spoke and wrote, but his remedy was to lecture and present what he thought was correct, and let his listeners make the obvious conclusion, rather than declaim the errors of others as such. This behavior is especially evident during the split from the Theosophical Society that took place between 1909 and 1912. So I find it probable that Steiner was fully aware of the Ariosophists and for that reason stopped using the term. Proving this contention would be more difficult; the evidence is circumstantial.

While the exact date that Steiner first formulated his negative opinions on List cannot be precisely determined, Steiner's position on List's work is clear. He sees no similarities with his own intentions, and finds it of low quality.

Works Cited

Goodrick-Clarke, Nicholas. The Occult Roots of Nazism: Secret Aryan Cults and Their Influence on Nazi Ideology. The Ariosophists of Austria and Germany, 1890-1935. New York: New York University Press, 1985.

Steiner, Rudolf. Von Seelenrätseln. 1. Aufl. Berlin 1917, GA 21, Dornach 1976. p 74.

Steiner, Rudolf. Menschliche und menschheitliche Entwicklungswahrheiten. Das Karma des Materialismus. Dornach: Rudolf Steiner Nachlassverwaltung. (Lecture of June 26th, 1917. GA 176. Translation by Daniel Hindes.)

[1] "Völkisch" is a German adjective derived from the noun "Volk". The closest translation of the noun would be "people", making the adjectival version "popular" as in "of the people", but the German encompasses far more. "Völkisch" indicates a desire for the native and traditional local habits and customs. The "Völkisch Movement" worked actively to instill Germanic traits and aggressively eliminate all foreign, contaminating influences. It started in the 1870's and reached a high point following the First World War. Hitler built on many of the themes and subsumed all Völkisch groups into the Nazi party in 1933.

[2] Steiner published and edited a periodical titled "Lucifer-Gnosis" from 1898 to 1907.

[3] A search of Steiner's complete works for the noun Aryan (in German Arier) returns 16 results. In looking for the adjective forms we find that the adjective "Aryan" appears in Steiner's work 39 times. This means that a maximum of 56 out of 90,000 pages. Since several of these occur on the same page, you have less than 50 pages that contain any sort of reference to Aryans. That is, the concept of Aryans occurs in less than 0.00056% of Steiner's work.

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