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A War Of All Against All?

Updated: Jun 9, 2023

In 1906 Rudolf Steiner gave a series of lectures to an audience of mostly Russian and German listeners in the Parisian suburb of Passy. Steiner’s lectures were not part of the official program for the Theosophical Congress taking place in Paris that year, and were at first held in a private house. Yet his popularity was so great that, although loathed to do so, the French Theosophists, who were partial to Annie Besant, the society’s leader, had no choice but to offer him the use of a lecture hall. Steiner had only recently become the head of the German branch of the society, yet his standing within the Theosophical community was second only to Besant’s herself. Soon enough, Steiner would break with the theosophists, taking practically all of the society’s German speaking members with him. It was out of this loyal following that the Anthroposophical movement was born.

Steiner had a remarkable audience for his lectures. He was originally slated to give his talks in Russia the year before, as part of a tour organised by his second wife, the Baltic-Russia Marie von Sivers. The failed revolution of 1905 scuppered those plans, but many of the Russian intelligentsia who would have attended the cancelled lectures found themselves in Paris at the same time as Steiner, having made their way there following the aborted uprising’s collapse. Steiner took the opportunity to speak to his émigré audience about the vision he had for the future of Russia- or rather, of the future that he believed was showing some of its first signs among that troubled people.

Many in his audience felt, as Steiner did, that Russia had an important and unique role to play in the world that lay ahead. Figures like the novelist and mystical philosopher Dmitri Merzhkovsky, author of books about Atlantis and other esoteric subjects; his wife, the poet Zinaida Gippius, and other poets such as Konstantine Balmont and N. M. Minkski attended Steiner’s lecture. All were informed with the heady mystical, spiritual sensibility that characterised that time, a period in Russian history known as the Silver Age. This was a time of mysticism, magic and an often feverish spirituality. Merzhkovsky and his wife were central figures in this period, leading a group of spiritual pilgrims and explorers of the soul known as the God-Seekers. They, and others in the nascent Russian Symbolist movement, believed that through art and poetry, spiritual powers could be invoked which, they hoped, could help bring about the salvation of the world.

Much of what Steiner had to say appealed to the God-Seekers. He spoke of the evolution of the cosmos and the place of humanity within it. He told them of the different civilizations that had appeared since the sinking of Atlantis. Five great civilizations had appeared since that planetary catastrophe – which, according to Steiner, had taken place some ten thousand years earlier - forming what he called “cultural epochs.” Each epoch had a unique task and played a specific part in the evolution of human consciousness. The current epoch, the fifth, centred on Western civilization. Its task, Steiner said, was to develop the intellect, the individual “I”, the ego. This had been accomplished. In fact, we might say that it had been achieved too well. Starting with the rise of what we know as science in the seventeenth century, the human intellect had come into its own so securely that the ego was perilously close to losing all contact with the higher, spiritual powers that were its source. The rise of a reductive, materialist, ‘positivist’ science and its denial of any reality ‘higher’ than that of the physical world, was a sure sign of this danger.

Yet Steiner informed his audience that, while establishing its own indispensable place in the history of consciousness, each epoch also contained within it the seeds of the next. Within the vast mass of humanity making up the Fifth Post-Atlantean Cultural Epoch lived a number of individuals, who embodied in a rough form the characteristics of the next, the Sixth Post-Atlantean Cultural Epoch. Not only isolated individuals, but whole peoples could be the bearers of some traits of the future to come. One such people, Steiner told his audience, were the Russians. In them he saw the first shoots of the new consciousness that would appear fully formed in the millennia ahead.

Three characteristics exemplified for Steiner the kind of consciousness that would inform the Sixth Post-Atlantean Cultural Epoch, which would not fully arrive until AD 3500. Yet in the Russian people, Steiner could see some early signs of this development. One characteristic of the new epoch would be a certain “moral quality,” a sensitivity to and empathy with the pain and suffering of others.[1] While the Western ego had secured its own individuality, sealing itself off as it were from those around it, people of the new epoch would feel the pain of others as their own. Many, if not most of us turn a blind eye and deaf ear to the plight of the homeless and hungry, and we may rationalise this insensitivity as inescapable. Life is difficult enough for ourselves, we may say; surely we can’t help everyone? Yet the consciousness of the new epoch won’t have this option. Then, others’ hunger, pain, loneliness and suffering will affect us as if it were our own. Then we will know that “the well-being of the individual will depend entirely on the well-being of the whole.” [2]

To anyone aware of Russian history, that Steiner should suggest that a hypersensitivity to suffering would appear among the Russian people makes a great deal of sense. Throughout their history, the Russians have experienced enormous suffering themselves, something that comes through in the careers of tyrants such as Ivan the Terrible, the plight of the serfs and the depiction of the Russian soul in the works of Gogol, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.

Another characteristic Steiner associates with the new cultural epoch is that any beliefs an individual may have will be the result of his or her own understanding. The idea of dogma or ideology will vanish and the people of this time will embrace a complete freedom of thought and a rejection of collective beliefs.

The third characteristic of the Sixth Post-Atlantean Cultural Epoch will be that all knowledge will be rooted in the spiritual. The people of this time will experience a direct awareness of spiritual reality. The kind of materialist science characterising our own time will be a relic of the past, replaced by a “spiritual science,” along the lines of Steiner’s own teachings.

In a later lecture, given in 1915, during the dark days of World War I, Steiner went into more detail about the possibility of some early signs of the new consciousness appearing in Russia. He emphasized that in order for the spiritual powers necessary to actualise the new epoch to do their work, what were needed were communities of individuals who would come and work together consciously and of their own free will to make this possible, by embodying the three characteristics of the new consciousness. What was most important was that a feeling of brotherhood should inform these communities, a sense of unity. Yet this must be a ‘higher’ unity, one of spirit, and not, as have existed in the past, one of blood. Steiner then pointed out that among the nations of the world at that time, it was in Russia that the sense of brotherhood and unity among the people was greatest.[3]

Yet this unity was not of the spirit, but of the blood. It was a unity based on biology, not free conscious choice. Steiner made a point that has been made by others when contrasting the Western mind with the Russian soul: that in the West we think of ‘me’, the individual, while the Russians think of ‘we’, the community. Yet the community that many of the Russian intelligentsia advocated as a salutary alternative to the atomised society of the West would not, Steiner argued, be suitable as a vessel for the spiritual powers necessary to bring on the next epoch. Steiner mentions the essayist Alexander Herzen as one of the intelligentsia promoting a Russian unity against the Western ego. He mentions that Herzen claimed that in the West, no one can be happy, that happiness is impossible there, since everyone is “out for themselves,” an assessment echoed by many since the mid-nineteenth century, when Herzen voiced it. Herzen, Steiner said, believed that “the only salvation lies in the Russian nature and the Russian form of life where men have not yet separated themselves from the community…” [4]

It is interesting that Steiner should refer to Herzen to make his point. Herzen came to the view that Steiner speaks of at the end of his career, after years spent as a Westerniser, those of the intelligentsia who believed that it was only by adopting Western ideas – science and liberalism – that Russia would emerge from its Medieval backwardness and misery.

Yet after the collapse of his belief in the possibility of the social utopia of visionaries like Proudhon, Herzen turned toward the Slavophiles, the sworn enemies of the West. The Slavophiles believed that it was only through a distinctly Russian idea that Russia could be saved; Western ideas would not and could not work. Against a growing Western agnosticism and a society based on “rational self-interest,” the Slavophiles believed in a return to Orthodoxy and placed their hopes in the mystical goodness of the Russian peasant. The one Western thinker they did look too was the German Romantic philosopher Friedrich Schelling, who believed that each race had its own “soul,” an idea that Steiner embraced and that, in a different form, emerges in much of our contemporary “identity politics.” Whatever would save Russia, the Slavophiles insisted, must come from the Russian soul. They were all for community, but it had to be a distinctly Russian one.

Yet such a community as the Slavophiles envisioned, Steiner said, is a kind of atavism, a return to an earlier form of life that humanity had outgrown. That was the task of the Fifth Post-Atlantean Cultural Epoch: to draw human consciousness out of the warm embrace of the “group soul,” and to place the individual on his or her own feet, with all the dangers that entailed. Such a throwback, Steiner said, would be of a Luciferic-Ahrimanic character and would establish a “coercion of belief as rigid as that of the Orthodox Church.”[5]

Clearly such a belief would not satisfy the conditions of the next epoch, which, as mentioned, would be characterised by the individual arriving at his or her own beliefs through their own powers. It would not be until the next epoch had arrived – a millennia and a half hence – that the Russian people would be ready for the characteristics of the new consciousness to appear. Then, they will bring to “definite expression the elementary forces” lying with them. Until then, they will presage this evolutionary shift in a way that is “extremely hazy and confused,” emerging as it does from a kind of “perverted instinct” of “things to come.”[6]

Nearly a century after his death, one wonders what Steiner would have made of the events happening in Ukraine, with a Russia still suffering from an identity crisis following the collapse of the Soviet Union, imposing its will on an independent nation it claims is really part of itself. That Russia should treat Ukraine – what it sees as “Little Russia” – in this way has a long historical pedigree.[7] Certainly Steiner would be saddened by the carnage, but what might interest him is that behind the invasion of Ukraine lies a larger, less localised conflict, one centred on precisely the opposition of the Western ‘me’ and the Russian ‘we’ that he was at pains to make clear in his lecture.

As I point out in The Return of Holy Russia, in recent years the Russian president, Vladmir Putin, has characterised the new opposition between East and West as not about communism and capitalism, but between two radical different views of civilization.[8] For Putin, Western liberalism and notions of a free market have in the twenty-first century gone into overdrive, with the philosophy of globalization intent on turning the planet into a huge shopping mall, in which everything, reality itself, is available for purchase. In the West, you can have whatever you want, whenever you want it. Everything is fluid and negotiable, even one’s identity. If you “identify” as this or that, your “human rights” demand that you are it. The ‘me’ economy will brook no opposition. The individual’s pursuit or his or her ‘happiness’ knows no limits and dissolves all constraints.

Against this, Putin presents Russia as the last bastion of the true faith, the last nation guided by “traditional values.” It is the land of traditional social roles, traditional gender roles, traditional sexual roles, traditional family roles, all based on traditional Orthodox religious values. It may seem counter-intuitive to see Russia, the land of gangster politics and ostentatious oligarchs, as morally superior to the West, and no doubt Putin’s rhetoric is motivated more by political expediency than sincere belief. Yet the extreme liberalism and permissiveness that characterises the “anything goes” sensibility of the West, is an easy target for accusations of selfishness and ego gratification. For many Russians the ‘me’ economy is out of control. Against this, Putin defends the ‘we’ of Russian community, in which the individual is but a small part of the larger mass and in which the good of the whole takes precedent over the desires of the one.

One source for the new, morally superior identity that Putin seems to want Russia to adopt – and I hastened to add that, whatever his motives, Putin’s speeches are full of this rhetoric - is Alexandre Dugin, an individual – although he would reject this characterization - with a curious political background.[9] Dugin began as an anti-Soviet punk in the 1980s and was arrested and put in the Lubyanka prison for singing an anti-Soviet song. Since then he has gone through many ideological metamorphoses, engaging in several political quick-change routines in rapid succession, ranging from pro-Soviet hardliner, to advocate of the “red-brown” radical doctrine of National Bolshevism, a murky mashup of National Socialism and Stalinism.

If Herzen believed that no one in the West can be happy because of its emphasis on the individual ego, Dugin is out to annihilate that ego altogether. According to Dugin, the individual and his or her rights is what is wrong with the West – the “hissing, rhizomatic, twittering sub-individual,” to be exact.[10] For Dugin, “every human identity is acceptable and justified, except that of the individual,” which, in fact, does not really exist, given that whatever character the individual possesses does not derive from himself, but from “the state.”[11] That is why he rejects the seemingly unstoppable advance of Western ideas about human rights and a free market and finds acceptable practically any form of politics and society that emphasizes the precedence of the community over the individual.

This preference runs through his anti-Western polemic, The Fourth Political Theory, which advocates the return to some totalitarian ideology informed with his own version of “traditional values,” based on a unappetizing blend of Russian Orthodoxy and the kind of caste-based society envisioned by the Traditionalist esoteric thinkers René Guénon and Julius Evola, who share his hatred of the West. The only political and social ideology Dugin rejects is liberalism, the almost global acceptance of which inspired Francis Fukuyama to claim that with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the spread of free-market economics, we had reached “the end of history.”[12]

Not quite, according to Dugin. What remains for him is the final conflagration between two elemental, archetypal powers, who have been engaged in a war throughout all of history. The combatants may have changed, but at bottom there has been one perennial conflict. This is the struggle between the people he calls the Atlanticists, and the inhabitants of the mother of all continents, Eurasia.

Dugin adopts this scenario from the work of an Edwardian British geographer, Halford Mackinder, who argued that this eternal battle is between the maritime, mercantile nations and the people of the largest landmass on the planet, the huge supercontinent stretching from Asia to Europe. The maritime nations are Dugin’s Atlanticists, advocates of “fluidity” in both their sea-faring character and their obsession with trade and merchandise. Eurasia is the name that Dugin and Putin have given to the new civilization they claim is rising up in Russia, as the West continues its decline, something it’s been experiencing since Oswald Spengler’s bestselling The Decline of the West appeared in 1918; Spengler, too, saw Russia as the birthplace of a new civilization.

Against the Atlanticist’s fluidity, Eurasia embodies rock-solid traditional, i.e., “eternal” religious values. In his apocalypse-rich writings, Dugin advocates and eagerly anticipates some final, no-holds-barred smackdown between these two perpetual enemies, with Eurasia emerging victorious. With this, the invidious Western individual would finally be obliterated, and humanity would sink back into some pre-egoic state, where we would be at one with nature and each other, a condition that many anti-modern thinkers might find appealing. With Putin frequently rattling his nuclear warheads, one can only hope that this is one aspect of Dugin’s geopolitics he takes with generous helpings of salt. Yet, that NATO is an anagram for the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, does give pause for thought.

Steiner, too, knew that there was a negative side to the individual ego. In a lecture on the Apocalypse of St. John given in Nuremberg in 1908, he spelled out his concerns, speaking of the ego as a “double-edged sword.”[13] What will presage the arrival of the new cultural epoch is what Steiner calls the “war of all against all,” an all-encompassing battle brought about by the conflict of egos, or at least that of one side of them. It is the ego that hardens itself against its rivals, all the other egos, and sees the world and everything in it as simply at its disposal. This is the ego as consumer, the target of the ‘me’ economy, and one doesn’t have to be a sworn opponent of the West to recognise that his or her concerns take precedent over practically everything else today.

But there is another side to the ego, what we might call the “I” in contrast to the ‘me’. This is the side that, as Steiner says, gives us our “independence and inner freedom” and “in the truest sense of the word,” elevates us. It is the basis of “the Divine in man.” What is needed is to strengthen this “I” until it can join with others in a “community of free and independent Egos.”[14] This is the aim of Steiner’s “spiritual science,” which moves in a completely other direction than the craving “to go down again…into some sort of universal consciousness, some sort of common consciousness,” which advocates of a “group mind,” whether that of the Slavophiles or the German Volk or what Dugin or some other contemporary spiritual movements hold up as a model.

Yet the kind of free, conscious community Steiner envisions will not come about easily. It is our egoism that fuels the war of all against all. And such a war, Steiner tells us, won’t be limited to nation against nation, as World War I, at the time of Steiner’s Nuremberg lecture a mere six years away, would be. In a stunningly prescient remark, Steiner told his audience that by the time of the war of all against all, “the conception of a nation will no longer have the significance it possesses today,” an idea that the rise of globalization and the increasing importance of corporate powers has made us familiar with. Such a war will involve “every single person against every other person…” every “class against class, caste against caste, and sex against sex…”[15]

Given the rancour and resentment that fill our social media, and the increasing threat of political and social violence, one might wonder if, were Steiner aware of it, he might have reconsidered the estimated time of arrival of his war of all against all. For what do we see today but people of different religions, classes, sexes, genders, ages, nationalities and races, “warring” with each other, fighting over their “rights,” over being “respected,” over their “identities,” which in the end means over their “I’s”? Social media itself has become a kind of battle field, in which we compete with each other for attention, recognition, and “likes,” while showing how uniquely fascinating and interesting we are.

But if this war of all against all is the opener to a shift in human consciousness, it seems that it is ushering in something rather different than a brotherhood of free, independent egos, consciously joining together in the work of cosmic evolution, although it is certainly providing ample suffering for those sensitive enough to feel it. In Putin and Dugin’s Russia, nationalism is the binding idea and the freedom for individuals to think their own thoughts is a scarcity, as the arrests of hundreds of Russians protesting against the war in Ukraine make clear. The unity of blood, or of the ethnoi, the name given to huge racial groups by the maverick Russian ethnologist Lev Gumilev, whose ideas inform the Eurasia concept, is promoted and a ”coercion of belief as rigid as that of the Orthodox Church” is on the rise, if it isn’t already firmly established.[16] We live in accelerated times and it may be that Steiner’s prophecy has jumped the gun. If so let us hope that there are also those working today with an equally advanced notice who are ready to consciously play their part in whatever things may come.

[1] Rudolf Steiner “Preparing for the Sixth Epoch,” lecture given in Düsseldorf, Germany 15 June 1915 [2] Ibid. [3] Ibid. [4] Ibid. [5] Ibid. [6] Ibid. [7] Serhii Plokhy Lost Kingdom: A History of Russian Nationalism from Ivan the Great to Vladimir Putin (London: [8] Gary Lachman The Return of Holy Russia (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2020). [9] Gary Lachman Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump (New York: Tarcher Perigee, 2018) [10] Alexander Dugin The Fourth Political Theory (London: Arktos Media, 2012) p. 173. [11] Ibid. p. 169. [12] Francis Fukuyama The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Free Press, 1992). [13] Rudolf Steiner “The Apocalypse of St. John” lecture given in Nuremberg 30 June 1908 [14] Ibid. [15] Ibid. [16] Lachman 2018 pp. 160-64.

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