Language, Speaking, Writing, Reading
In the Evolution of Consciousness
Before the human being was a self-conscious being in the way that he is today,
an artist was at work in him, active as the spirit of language, and our I is embedded in a place where previously an artist was at work. …Language is really cleverer than human beings, for it comes to us from primeval worlds. There is a deep reason why breathing was once called inspiration. In general, the words of our language say much more than we, in our abstract consciousness, feel them to contain.
(Rudolf Steiner,” Spiritual Science and Language”
in Metamorphoses of the Soul, Vol 2.)
Seek in reading and you will find in meditation;
know in prayer and it will be opened to you in contemplation.
St. John of the Cross
Language began in magic and, despite the invention of the printing press and its digital devolution through the internet, it may yet perhaps yet continue—at least for a while—to be the magical and principle factor in humanity’s spiritual evolution. Although in the distant future, humanity may have evolved to the point where intimate, meditative, inspired oral discourse renders books unnecessary, for the moment we must hope that books and reading them closely—deeply, meditatively—may, despite competition from the internet and its tools, continue their transformative and evolutionary mission.
In other words, books, especially serious books like those of Rudolf Steiner, which demand and require “deep” and “continually inwardly transforming” reading are at risk. This means that Spiritual Science or Anthroposophy which, through the deep digestion of its insights and practices, under the guidance of Michael, seeks to embody a new, evolutionary transformation of consciousness as the seed of a new World Culture, is potentially also at risk.
Certainly, if they wish to be part of the evolving world, Anthroposophists must use all the new media to make freely available in the most accessible ways the fruits of Anthroposophy. As publishers, we at SteinerBooks must also support the various daughter movements: Waldorf education, Biodynamics, Anthroposophical medicine and so on. But, unlike those movements, as publishers of Rudolf Steiner, I feel we also have a further and deeper duty toward Anthroposophy itself, as it contained in the Collected Works, to support and encourage the deep, meditative and transformative reading. As material objects, the books in this series, whether read now or in the future, will remain—deo volente—part of the historical record, thus safeguarding the precious deposit of Spiritual Science, for at least as long as history endures. SteinerBooks (alongside Rudolf Steiner Verlag in Dornach and Rudolf Steiner Press in the U.K, co-publisher of the Collected Works) are, in fact, the only Anthroposophical Institutions charged with that duty. For these, I believe it is a legitimate concern to ask whether Anthroposophy itself can fulfil its promise as a largely oral tradition, as it sometimes seems in danger of becoming, now that reading Rudolf Steiner seems largely to have been fragmented into the cursory reading of separate lectures, often based on individual needs for specific “bits” of “information.”
Rudolf Steiner himself, of course, was clearly a “book” person. His personal collection of books—his library—contained more than 9,000 volumes (many annotated) and countless magazines and journals. It began in adolescence (as he describes in his Autobiography) with the purchase of Kant’s Critique, Rottech’s nine volume History of the World, and an account of Herbart’s Philosophy and Psychology. Nor should we discount in this initiation of his reading life the physician from Wiener-Neustadt, who, in the context of extended literary and philosophical discussions, first introduced Rudolf Steiner to German literature, communicating his deep love of it, and allowing him to borrow books from his library. Thus, from such beginnings, Steiner’s own library and his own transformative reading would be built up over a lifetime of reading, accompanying him from place to place, until finally settling in Dornach.
Despite this, the place of “deep, meditative reading” in Rudolf Steiner’s creation and unfolding of Anthroposophy is seldom emphasized. In fact, it was the deep reading of what might be called his “platform” or “sources”—Goethe, Schiller, Kant, Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, and Nietzsche, as well as “Rosicrucians” such Paracelsus, Boehme, Basilius Valentine and others (not to mention The Secret Doctrine and other Theosophical works)— amplified by his own continuously evolving and developing cognitive and spiritual faculties that allowed him, as he put it, “to bring philosophy into the spiritual world,” where until then it had hovered only on its fringes. Witness this charming, early letter written when he was only nineteen (January 13, 1881)
It was the night from January 10th to the 11th. I didn’t sleep a wink. I was busy with philosophical problems until about 12.30 a.m. Then, finally, I threw myself down on my couch. All my striving during the previous year had been to research whether the following statement by Schelling was true or not: “Within everyone dwells a secret, marvelous capacity to draw back from the stream of time—out of the self that is clothed in all that comes to us from outside—into our innermost being and there, in the immutable form of the Eternal, to look into ourselves.” I believe, and I am still quite certain of it, that I discovered this capacity in myself. I had long had an inkling of it. Now the whole of idealist philosophy stands before me transformed in its essence. What’s a sleepless night compared to that!
Phenomenologically, the qualities that distinguish material books from digital media are easily noted. Gazing at a screen, or reading a download, is clearly a different experience to that of holding a printed book in one’s hand and reading it with care and attention. When one reads a book, one participates with one’s whole being in a context and process that involves a whole range of bodily proprioceptive sensory-haptic motions and gestures, affects and sensations, most of which are largely unavailable to the screen-reader. One’s sense of touch feels, even enjoys, for example, the edge of the pages as one turns them; one’s sense of hearing is comforted by the rustle of the pages as they turn: one’s sense of smell savors with pleasure the scent of the paper, the ink, the print. At the same time, one’s word sense forms an intimate, inner connection not just with the book itself, but above all with the words of the text, in all its re-readings, and interconnections, identified and counter-posed as one flips forward and back for confirmation of insights—all of which stimulates a deep, transformative immersion in the living reality of the text. In other words, when one reads a book one has the possibility of a deep, indeed continually deepening meditative, reading, in which one which one absorbs the content on multiple levels of body, soul, and spirit. That is, one does not read a book for information, but for transformation.
From this point of view, a book is a unique kind of object. Material, made of paper and ink, it lies before me inert and lifeless until I show an interest in it. Is it aware that we can become one in mutual transformation? It seemed so to the French critic Georges Poulet, who provides a good contemporary description of the beginning of this process:
Take a book, and you will find it offering itself, opening itself. It is this openness of the book that I find so moving. A book is not shut in by its contours, is not walled up as in a fortress. …. It asks nothing better than to exist outside itself, or to let you exist in it. In fact, the extraordinary fact in the case of a book is the falling away of the barriers between you and it. You are inside it; it is inside you; there is no longer either outside or inside.
Such is the initial phenomenon produced when I take up a book, and begin to read it. At the precise moment that I see, surging out of the object I hold open before me, a quantity of signification which my mind grasps, I realize that what I hold in my hands is no longer an object, or even simply a living thing. I am aware of a consciousness: the consciousness of another, no different from the one I assume in every human being I encounter, except that in this case the consciousness is open to me, welcomes me, lets me deep inside itself, and even allows me, with unheard-of license, to think what it thinks, to feel what it feels.
Unheard-of, I say. Unheard-of first is the disappearance of the “object.” …. For the book is no longer a material reality. It has become a series of words, of images, of ideas and concepts which in turn begin to exist. And where it this new existence? Surely not in the paper object. Nor, surely in external space. There is only one place left for this new existence: my innermost self.
To illuminate and understand something of the deeper issues at stake in this choice between older and newer technologies of reading—and, indeed writing—Rudolf Steiner, as always, gives us some indications:
…. Regarding the nature of language, it must be quite clearly understood that there is something in us which was there before the ego, which was then developed by the ego. But then, also, it cannot be claimed that language directly represents the ego, that it represents the spiritual aspect in us, everything which is intimate to our personality; but it must be understood that we can never see in language an immediate expression of the ego. The spirit of language works symbolically in the ether body, imitatively in the physical body; and this is linked with its creative activity in the sentient soul, forcing the inward experiences from it in such a manner that the sound is an expression of the inner life. In sum, language did not develop according to the conscious ego as it is today, but, if the development of language is to be compared to anything at all, its development can only be compared to artistic creation. Just as we cannot demand that the imitation of the artist corresponds to reality, we cannot demand that language copies those things which it is meant to represent. Language only imitates the outside world in a way similar to the picture, to the way that the artist as such imitates outside reality. Before the human being was a self-conscious being in the way that he is today, an artist was at work in him, active as the spirit of language, and our ego is embedded in a place where previously an artist was at work.
In other words:
Thus, before man became an individual soul another soul was working in the three members of his being of which we have knowledge today only through spiritual science, a soul which was the precursor of our individual ego. And this precursor of our ego, which then passed on to the ego the physical body, ether body and astral body in order that the ego might continue to transform them, this group-soul also transformed from within itself the physical body, ether body and astral body and ordered them according to itself. And the final activity of the human being before he was endowed with an ego, the final influence which lies before the birth of the ego, is present today in what we call human language. When we therefore consider what preceded the life of our consciousness soul, our intellectual or mind soul and our sentient soul, we come across an activity of the soul which is not yet transfused by the ego and its result is present today in the expression of language.
To begin to reimagine the role of language in this evolutionary sense —that is, including singing, speaking, writing, reading—a little history, and even prehistory, may provide a useful background to the issues we currently face.
While the origins of language are still hazy and largely speculative, a reasonable case can be made for the origins of speech in song. Most likely beginning in gesture, signs, in tandem with the beginnings of symbolic consciousness—as, for example, revealed in the earliest burial sites (around 100,000 BCE) in which heaps of stones are covered symbolically in ground red ochre—we can imagine these songs or articulated meaningful sounds or sonorities as oriented toward, receptive of, and addressing the invisible world of spirit and the dead. We may think of them as primordial prayer- or praise songs, and also, at the same time, as also as a form of sacrifice. As the Rig Veda put it centuries later, praise song comes first and creates the world: “Whatever the Gods do they do by song. The song is the sacrifice.” Not only that, for, on the human side: “The Gods are created through song.” The sacrifice is reciprocal. Thus, through sung speech humanity—human consciousness and consciousness of the world—evolved together.
Song in this early form did not depend on music: the sung words were initially themselves the music. As late as Plato, Socrates tells us in the The Republic that music “is composed of three things, the word, the harmony [of the words], and the rhythm [of the words]. The harmony and the rhythm must follow the words.” Thus, actual musical notation came relatively late in Greece and it was generally so into the early Middle Ages: to sing was the declaim the words. The sound of the words was the meaning, was already song. Finally, it was the effect of alphabetic writing that separated them. At the same time, alphabetization ultimately democratized reading, whereas the hieroglyphic and cuneiform scripts of Sumeria, Egypt, and Babylon, important for the union of word and image, still remained largely the province of the priests, (though the merchant class used it for accounting etc).
Alphabetic reading, however, could still unite word and song, if to a lesser degree. For this to occur, however, the written text or scripture had to speak. In the words of Augustine “when a word is written it makes a sign to the eyes whereby that which pertains to the ears enters the mind.” That is, “if writing speaks, to read is to listen.” Here the celebrated example was that of the Prophet Jeremiah and his scribe, Baruch, whose job it was to write down all that God had said on a scroll, and present it the people, who immediately asked him to “read it in their ears.” When was his reading was over, they asked him: “Tell us how didst thou write all these words at his mouth?” To which Baruch famously replied: “He pronounced these words unto me with his mouth, and I wrote them with ink in the book.” (Jeremiah 36, 15-18).
For this reason, during the Middle Ages and above all in monastic settings, readers would read their texts as much with their lips as their eyes. They would become the “voices of the pages.” The division between the material and the ideal did not then exist. Indeed, to think so made no sense to a world view in which bodily performance and intellectual comprehension were as viscerally linked as eating and digestion. Reading was basic food, like bread. It had to be thoroughly masticated, ruminated, chewed over. In this way, it not only entered the memory, it also could be raised up into the spiritual world. This meant, among other things, that the experience of reading was not linear in any purposive sense of getting through it. Rather, it was understood as a wandering journey, a path. A reader was a wayfarer in the text. Here we may note that, while the ancient Greek word for reading, anagignosco, meant to recollect, its Latin translation, lego, referred rather to collecting, or gathering, and was often described with allusions to hunting, fishing, or otherwise “tracking down prey.” In the words of Leroi-Gourhan, French archeologist, paleontologist and anthropologist: “Each piece of reading was a compact sequence, rhythmically broken up by seals, and marginal notes around which readers found their way like primitive hunters—by following a trail, rather than by studying a plan.” One thinks of the Celtic monk of Reichenau Abbey and his poem, “Pangur Ban”:
I and Pangur Bán my cat,
‘Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.
So, in peace our task we ply,
Pangur Ban, my cat, and I;
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has his.
Practice every day has made
Pangur perfect in his trade;
I get wisdom day and night
Turning darkness into light.
Faith in spiritual meaning guided the journey. The itinerary or ductus —dynamic movement of the text—was the guide to the wayfarer’s path as it was laid down in the walking of it. Sensing the guiding principles within the work as contemplation revealed them, the reader was led through the world of the work in harmony with the ever-transforming “con-duct” of the reader-wayfarer’s thinking, listening, feeling mind as it travelled the text, guided by the immanent shape of the whole, as this was expressed in its flow. Such reading requires a practice of obedience—or thorough listening (ob-audio)—to the text, so as follow its path and not one’s own. This practice was called lectio divina (sacred reading): meditative reading as prayer or contemplation.
Such listening to “the voices of the pages” was furthermore an activity of the whole person—body, mind, soul, and heart. Doctors prescribed it as an exercise, equivalent to walking or running. At the same time, the process was understood to be dialogic, to occur between self and other. To read was to create a relationship between language and the spirit. It was to enter the middle ground of participation between nature and grace: to be in-between the visible and the invisible.
Far from being a passive absorption of “information,” such reading was an existential act, a matter of life and death. It was not primarily a tool of edification or of spiritual improvement, and had nothing to do with interpretation—exegesis—scientific or otherwise. To read was to engage in a transformative event, the encounter with the living Word or Meaning. It was also to walk a path of cognition, one that led through thinking to knowing, and through knowing to wisdom, and through wisdom to union.
The classic formulation of lectio divina was The Ladder of Monks, written by a Carthusian solitary, Guigo II (d. 1188), the ninth Prior of the Grande Chartreuse. It tells of Guigo’s discovery of a ladder, “whose rungs are few, but whose length is so immense that it reaches from earth to pierce the clouds and touch the secrets of heaven.”
“One day,” Guigo writes, “while busy working with my hands, I began to think about our spiritual work, and all at once four stages in spiritual exercise came into my mind: reading, meditation, prayer, and contemplation…”
Reading is the careful study of scripture, concentrating all one’s powers on it. Meditation is the busy application of the mind to seek with the help of one’s own reason for knowledge of hidden truth. Prayer is the heart’s devoted turning to God to drive away evil and obtain what is good. Contemplation is when the mind is in some sort lifted up to God and held above itself, so that it tastes the joys of everlasting sweetness.
In other words, what we have here is a prototype of Rudolf Steiner’s mantric or sentence meditions, a process extenable to all serious reading in general. Starting with ordinary thinking, one reads slowly, attentively, with great care, circle around each thought, each word. One associates, connects, recalls, tryingto gather everything one already know, seeking the essence, goodness, truth, and reality that these words—these thoughts—contain. Imperceptibly, the conviction gradually dawns that there is something more, something other than our ordinary thinking can attain. Thinking rises, opening to the spirutal world. In Guigo’s words: “There is something good here. I shall return to my heart and try to understand and find this pure, precious, and desirable thing.”
We have found something, some insight, perhaps a thought, an incipient imagination, we have never had before. We sense the presence of something more, but we cannot reach it. We could perhaps remain satisfied with what we have discovered. Yet, rather than a conclusion, we know in our heart that actually we have reached only a kind of limit or boundary. Ordinary thinking seems to have exhausted itself.
So we turn our thinking around, upon ourselves. We take the subject of our thinking, our text, and apply it to ourselves. We enter into it. We go to the heart of it. We act as if these thoughts, these words, were addressed solely and singularly to us. We allow them to question us, to sink so deeply within us that they demand that we conform ourselves to them. Perhaps we feel compunction at our shortcomings. Like Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” there is no word, no letter, which does not “see us” and charge: “You must change your life.” In this way our mind is concentrated and a longing—Guigo calls it “sweet”—comes upon us.
This longing, Guigo says, is a gift “from above.” It kindles our soul, which as it were bursts into flame. And in that holocaust, we realize we cannot out of ourselves accomplish what is asked of us. What are we to do? We are consumed by longing, yet can find no means of attaining what we long for. The more we search, the greater our thirst, the greater suffering. As Guigo puts it, “A man will not experience this sweetness while reading or meditating ‘unless it happened to be given him from above.’”
In many different ways, the path of reading-cognition—Lectio Divina—that Guigo described in his “Ladder for Monks” became the engine of the transformation of consciousness that was the “twelfth century renaissance.” It was practiced by monks of stripes, as well as scholars and teachers, not to mention laypeople like the Beguines, and also those who Rudof Steiner called the “old philosophers,” namely the alchemists whose much repeated motto was:
ORA, LEGE, LEGE, LEGE, RELEGE, LABORA ET INVENIES
Pray, Read, Read, Read, Re-read, Work, and you will find
This path of reading-cognition (extendable to reading in the Book of Nature, not to mention the worls of Plato and Aristotle, as well as masters like Dionysius the Areopagite) made possible not only the fruits of the School of Chartres, including the Cistercian Alanus ab Insulis (Alain de Lille) but also but great Dominicans Thomas Aquinas, Albertus Magnus, Meister Eckhart, not to mention the mystics that followed, among others: Ruysbroek, Susa, Tauler, Thomas a Kempis and the author of the Theologia Germanica, as well as to Paracelsus, Giordano Bruno and “Christian Rosenkreutz”: all authors that Rudolf Steiner read and read deeply. Thus consciousness evolved.
With the invention of the printing press around 1450-1455—that is, only thirty years after the beginning of the modern age (or Age of the Conciousness Soul) with Joan of Arc and the beginning of the modern nation-state—obviously much changed. It marked, among other things, the beginning of the dominance of linearity, science (linear thinking), the homogenizing primacy of vision (fulfilled in Newton’s “Single Vision”), and the relegation of the auditory and other sensuous complexity into the background. Clearly, then it was a mixed blessing, one which is it our task as pioneers of the Consciousness Soul to redeem.
On the one hand, however, it must be recognized that it is unlikely that, without the printing press we would have had Anthroposophy at all, or, at least have it in the form that we do. It was the printing press, after all, that made possible the wide distribution of Rosicrucian, Hermetic, Alchemical, and Masonic literature, which Rudolf Steiner studied deeply. Less esotericall, philosophy, for instance, would likewise not have reached its highpoint in German idealism if Spinoza and Liebnitz had not had easy access to the writings of Descartes and the same is true for works of Paraclesus, Boehme, and others. On the other hand, in Steiner’s words:
Since the fifteenth century, people by and by have received a great amount of spiritual content by means of the art of printing and through writing. But they absorb this content only outwardly; it is the main feature of this period that an overwhelming sum of spiritual content has been assimilated superficially. The nations of the civilized world have absorbed something outwardly which the great masses of people could receive only by means of audible speech in earlier times. It was true of the period of rational development, and in the age of the sentient soul it was all the truer that, fundamentally speaking, all dissemination of learning was based on oral teaching. Something of the psycho-spiritual element still resounds through speech. Especially in former days, what could be termed “the genius of language” definitely still lived in words. This ceased to be when the content of human learning began to be assimilated in abstract forms, through writing and printed works. Printed and written words have the peculiarity of in a sense extinguishing what the human being brings with him at birth from his pre-earthly, heavenly existence.
However, it goes without saying that this does not mean that you should forthwith cease to read or write. It does mean that today a more powerful force is needed in order to raise up what lies deep within the human being. But it is necessary that this stronger force be acquired. We have to arrive at self-awareness despite the fact that we read and write; we have to develop this stronger faculty, stronger in comparison to what was needed in earlier times. This is the task in the age of the development of the consciousness soul.
In other words, although “the art of printing was felt as an Ahrimanic art, as a ‘black’ art,” we must always remember that Lucifer and Ahriman “must be in external culture,” but must be held in balance by Christ. That is: “If we know that we follow what we have described so often as the Christ impulse, which lives in us, and if we get the spiritual sensations that that impose the intention to follow Christ in every moment of our life, then we are also able to read…” This, for Rudolf Steiner, is the more powerful, the stronger force that reading requires today. It is what he elsewhere describes as “Rosicrucian Study.” It is also similar to his counsel on “reading to the dead,” which requires us to resurrect and spiritualize the material words, by thinking them anew, enlivening, making them our own, raising them to the highest meaning we can attain. As such living thoughts, they can pass into the spiritual world and—in a certain sense—we with them.
It is something of this kind that Rudolf Steiner calls for in the reading of works of spiritual science—the Collected Works. Reading them in this way—or creating one’s own way of lectio divina or deep, meditative reading—given the necessity of its spiritual content for the Consciousness Soul in preparation for the coming Age the so-called Sixth Epoch, that of the Spirit Self. To do so is to enable language to continue magically as the engine of the evolution of human consciousness.
However valuable and important in the evolution of consciousness books may be, in order to fulfil their mission, these books must be read. SteinerBooks duty toward the sacred deposit of Anthroposophy or Spiritual Science is therefore not only to publish the books (the Collected Works) of Rudolf Steiner. The record demonstrates that this is not sufficient. Nor is it satisfactory: it is not a museum we are trying to erect. Our duty to the books we publish must include finding them readers. This is not an easy task. No clear, simple way presents itself. However, as publishers, the most obvious way would seem to use books—addressed to the world, yet connected to Anthroposophy—to draw readers to Anthroposophy: so-called “bridge” books. I can imagine that these would be of at least four kinds—serious, of contemporary relevance, inspirational, and general. However, to go into details, demands a discussion of its own. And I leave it to another occasion.