When Nationalism Rears its Ugly Head

A Review of Architecture as Peacework by Rudolf Steiner

By Seth Jordan

Perhaps the most succinct and provocative description of Architecture as Peacework — a newly translated cycle of lectures by Rudolf Steiner — is to be found in its preface. It is a description of the context into which these lectures were given and their subsequent effect.

“In Switzerland, which was not in the war [WWI], Steiner’s Goetheanum had been under construction for almost a year, using a large group of volunteers from many countries to work on the building. When war broke out, the anthroposophists among them decided ‘we must commit ourselves more emphatically to our common cause,’ according to the account given by one of the volunteers, the Russian symbolist poet Andrei Belyi; ‘all of us—Russians, Germans, Austrians, French, Poles—we are all brothers in misfortune, we are all victims of criminal politics.’ But in October nationalism broke out among the workers. ‘The first momentum of our spontaneous solidarity was quite evidently broken. . . . . [T]he the storms in the canteen did not abate. . . . Soon, theoretical debates changed to concrete incidents and endangered the whole life of Dornach.’ Steiner intervened, not blaming any country for the war but instead giving five lectures ‘concerning the essence of culture. . . . Everyone was enthused. The Doctor had succeeded in soothing the waves of nationalistic passion. . . . [F]rom then on, the members of the various nations at war with one another lived in peace.’ The five lectures Belyi refers to are the lectures in this book.”

The publication of these lectures is timely. Again we find ourselves in the midst of racial and ethnic divisions. Again we find the tide of nationalism rising, people clamoring to build walls, to keep the others out! There is no world war waging, but there is a constant, and incredibly tense, jockeying for power. Of course, this is nothing new — in it we see the inevitable result of a worldview that depicts life as a “struggle for existence” based on self-interest — but the intensity of this struggle is reaching new levels.

As social and ethnic tensions have built up over recent years, I’ve wondered about a way forward. I’ve looked to Steiner’s work for direction, but have been lost in even knowing where to begin. When I read his foundational course on the various national cultures, The Mission of the Folk Souls, I found it somehow too general. It wasn’t until recently reading Architecture as Peacework, and then discovering the single lecture The Peoples of the Earth in the Light of Anthroposophy, that I felt I had found a starting point. I’m writing this review simply to share what seems to me a first step on a long journey.

When I’ve engaged activists with the question of race and nation, I’ve mostly met a strong, sometimes vehement, cultural relativism—there is no difference between peoples, I shouldn’t be looking at differences, I should be looking at my own privilege! While I wholeheartedly agree that I’ve led a life of privilege, and that there’s much I can do to help erase systemic inequities, I’ve also felt something more is needed—a way forward where interest and understanding can be born out of recognition of what is different in the other, including their cultural heritage, their ethnicity.

So, coming back to the current volume, what did Steiner say in these five lectures that was able to quell the sudden flare-up of nationalistic passions and bring harmony to the different cultural factions?

“We need to create an energetic culture of peace — not idle talk of peace, but the real peace that can arise only out of a concrete, mutual understanding of the various individual cultures.

We are very far from realizing this anthroposophical ideal; too much of what we do is actually the product of a merely egotistical identification with this or that national culture. But meanwhile we must greet with a measure of satisfaction any attempt to understand what really binds the various cultures together, for that alone is the source of genuine creativity.”

In these lectures Steiner describes the dynamic, co-creative influence of the national cultures on the human being. Surprisingly, he does this through surveying the architectural forms of the Goetheanum, especially exploring the sequence of motifs sculpted in the architraves above the columns in the main hall.

Steiner starts by showing how the movement within this sequence of motifs—their metamorphosis one into another—represent the inner evolution of the developing human being. They each express a different aspect of our soul life and, taken together, form a picture of the whole human being. But the consciousness of modern man has not developed in a vacuum—it has developed over long stretches of time and in relationship to the outer world. Different cultures and individuals have led the way, birthing and cultivating ways of thinking and feeling that have made us who we are today. Sometimes a thought takes centuries to develop. Sometimes it comes in a flash. And where would we be without these thoughts? Without the Pythagorean Theorem or the works of Shakespeare? Without Egyptian astronomy, Greek philosophy, or the Enlightenment? And so these motifs express not only our inner soul states but also the unique gifts that each culture gives to bring these soul states into being. Ultimately, we find that these cultures, like a “great chorus,” sing us into existence.

If we can come to see the national cultures, in their reality, as expressing different aspects of the human soul, then we come to see “what really binds the various cultures together.” And so peace is born out of concrete, mutual recognition. But the question remains: Can we actually learn to see the cultures of the world in this light?

It seems we can certainly make headway through immersing ourselves in other cultures, as well through the study of history and through “contemplating the inner nature of the historical actors themselves.” This study is obviously completely different if enriched through what anthroposophy brings—the evolution of consciousness, reincarnation and karma. And then there is the work of meditation, of exploring states of consciousness. “Fundamentally, all that exists in the universe is consciousness, consciousnesses” — the way to come to know the beings of the universe, including the beingness of whole peoples, is through deepening our experience of consciousness. As Steiner says in The Peoples of the Earth in the Light of Anthroposophy:

“To travel and live among other peoples is not enough, any more than cursory observation of a man’s gestures and movements enables us to understand his whole being… We can speak of an individual human being merely from sense-perception of him; but so far as sense-perception is concerned, the ‘race’ or ‘people’ is only a totality of so many individuals. Before we can recognize a race as a reality we must rise to the supersensible—it is the only way.”

So we see that learning to perceive national cultures is an important part of working towards world peace. But it’s also important in a more immediate and personal sense. The study of global cultures plays an important role in how we know ourselves.

“The ‘human’ is not expressed in its entirety through any individual man, nor through the members of any one race, but only through the whole of mankind. If a man would understand what he is in his whole being, let him study the characteristics of the different peoples of the Earth. Let him assimilate the qualities which he himself cannot possess by nature, for only then will he become fully man… If he discovers what is great and characteristic in the other peoples and allows this to penetrate deeply into his own being, he will realize that the purpose of his existence cannot be fulfilled without those qualities which he is able to receive from them, because these other qualities are also part of his own inner striving.”

For all the virtues that Steiner praises in other cultures, I have never seen him say a positive word for nationalism—for the activity of exalting the virtues of one’s own culture above others. On the contrary, he says again and again how this cultural egotism it is a destructive impulse in the world. In Architecture as Peacework he says “Esoteric truths go dark the moment we put the interests of any particular group ahead of the interests of humanity as a whole.” Even if the impulse is one of seeking ethnic self-knowledge, he says “Knowledge of one’s own race is sought by assimilating all that is idealistic, great and beautiful in other people’s of the earth.”

In contrast to the role race and ethnicity can play in self-knowledge, in his Philosophy of Freedom Steiner also describes its importance in how we know the other. In order to perceive what is unique in an individual, we need to recognize what is generic, their conditioning. Our national culture is generic—it’s general, something we’re born into. If we can see what is conditioned in this way, then we can also come to see what is not conditioned. But here’s the tricky part: to do so we have to move beyond our own preconceived ideas in order to see what’s actually new, the non-conditioned in the other. To do this we have to meet the individual on their own terms.

“The characteristics of race, people, nation and sex are the subject matter of special branches of study…But none of these branches of study are able to advance as far as the unique content of the single individual… If we would understand the single individual we must find our way into his own particular being and not stop short at those circumstances that are typical…Whenever we feel we are dealing with the element in a man which is free from stereotyped thinking and instinctive willing, then, if we would understand him in his essence, we must cease to call to our aid any concepts at all of our own making… if we are to understand a free individuality we must take over into our own spirit those concepts by which he determines himself, in their pure form…Just as the free individuality emancipates himself from the characteristics of the genus, so must the act of knowing emancipate itself from the way in which we understand what is generic.”

Ultimately, this is the essence of Steiner’s picture of the human being, as well as his powerful response to the question of free will: The human being is not a static being. We are not “free” or “unfree.” We are not just “determined by outer conditioning” nor “free of outer conditioning.” We are on a path of becoming free by recognizing that conditioning and choosing otherwise. We are not beings, we are becomings.

Race and culture should also be seen in this light. They are a part of our becoming, and ultimately every individual has aspects that are unique as well as aspects that are inherited (“no man is all genus, none is all individuality…”). On the one hand, we have the task of recognizing and looking beyond what’s generic in order to discover what’s unique in the other. And on the other hand, we have the task of recognizing and celebrating the national cultures of the world as living forces that are contributing to the ongoing spiritual evolution of humanity, and of ourselves. On this path of development, it seems that Steiner would have us wrestle with the difficulties inherent in difference, never turning away from the world but towards it, towards our brothers and sisters of other cultures and the gifts they bring that enrich us all.

Seth Jordan is an organizer and educator living in Harlemville, NY. Since co-founding Think OutWord, a peer-led training in social threefolding, in 2008, he has traveled widely, giving talks and workshops as well as organizing various projects in Europe, Asia, and the United States. At home in New York, Seth works mostly as a freelancer. He has most recently been working with Free Columbia, the Rudolf Steiner Library, SteinerBooks, and the Nature Institute.  
Rudolf Steiner, Architecture as Peacework, (Great Barrington, MA; SteinerBooks, 2017), p. 34
Ibid p. 33
ibid p.18
Rudolf Steiner, A Way of Self Knowledge and the Threshold of the Spiritual World, (Great Barrington, MA; SteinerBooks, 1999)
Rudolf Steiner, The Peoples of the Earth in the Light of Anthroposophy, March 10th, 1920.
It should be stated that when Steiner speaks about the different “Post-Atlantean” epochs of time dating back to ancient India, he is describing “people” or “races” where the differences are not physical but cultural. Of course there are physical differences between people as well, but these differences are insignificant compared to what has developed culturally amongst the different peoples since the beginning of recorded history.
Rudolf Steiner, The Peoples of the Earth in the Light of Anthroposophy, March 10th, 1920.
Rudolf Steiner, Architecture as Peacework, (Great Barrington, MA; SteinerBooks, 2017), p.60
Rudolf Steiner, The Peoples of the Earth in the Light of Anthroposophy, March 10th, 1920.
Rudolf Steiner, The Philosophy of Freedom, (Forest Row; Rudolf Steiner Press, 1964), pp. 205-207