Sir George Trevelyan: thoughts and writings

Rudolf Steiner

B J Nesfield-Cookson

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In Exploration into God[1], George Trevelyan stated that up to the age of 36 he had no concern "with the Spirit and no religious belief".[2] In 1942 an event occurred which changed the course of his life. He had become interested in organic husbandry, and sought out a leading exponent of the bio-dynamic method of agriculture and horticulture. This method had its roots in the Christo-centric spiritual scientific view of humankind and the earth presented by the Austrian scientist, philosopher and educationalist, Dr. Rudolf Steiner.[3] George attended a lecture entitled What did Dr. Steiner mean by Anthroposophy? given by a scholar, Dr. Stein,[4] who had known Steiner personally for many years.[5] Afterwards George wrote, "That hour was a revelation.… All the great concepts of Spiritual Science [Anthroposophy] came up one after the other and my whole soul innerly shouted affirmation to him [Stein]. "Pre-existence - yes, yes, obviously; Earth as training ground for souls - yes, indeed! Therefore Reincarnation through many [human] lives - obviously yes; Universe as Mind and living thought - Earth as a living creature - yes, yes! For that whole hour no negative response rose in me. The agnosticism of thirty-six years faded like morning mist." George spoke of that event as a revelation. For the first time he had a glimpse of what he later spoke of as "an holistic world-view". This was a view that did not remain mere theory, but, particularly from 1958 onwards, became living experience, living reality.[6]

Shortly after this George was led into Wolfgang von Goethe's thinking about plant metamorphosis by the scientist Dr. Ernst Lehrs[7], who had also known and learnt from Steiner. Goethe[8] showed that there is a way of approaching, "nature not as divided and in pieces, but presenting her as working and alive, striving out of the whole into the parts".[9] Steiner himself, in his early twenties, had been commissioned by the Goethe-and-Schiller Archives at Weimar to edit Goethe's scientific works. Through the continuing studies with Lehrs George gained a closer and deeper understanding of the science of the spirit presented by Steiner. Among the many statements by Steiner in regard to Goethe's natural scientific work which took root in George's soul, and which he nurtured throughout his life, was this: "The significance of Goethe's view about plant metamorphosis does not lie, for example, in the discovery of the individual fact that leaf, calyx, corolla, etc., are identical organs [petals, stamens, etc. are metamorphosed leaves], but rather in the magnificent building up in thought of a living whole of mutually interacting formative laws; this building up proceeds from his view of plant metamorphosis, and determines out of itself the individual details and the individual stages of plant development. The greatness of this idea.… dawns upon one only when one tries to make it alive in one's spirit, when one undertakes to rethink it.[10] One then one becomes aware that this thought is the very nature of the plant itself translated into the idea and living in our spirit just as it lives in the object; one observes also that one makes an organism alive for oneself right into its smallest parts, that one pictures it not as a dead, finished object, but rather as something evolving, becoming, as something never at rest within itself".[11]

While reading Steiner's Goethe the Scientist George encountered an account of a conversation between Goethe and the poet, playwright and historian Friedrich Schiller. Goethe had expounded on his concept of the archetypal plant from which individual forms of plants are derived. Schiller's response was, "But that is not an empiric experience, it is an idea". To which Goethe answered, "How splendid that I have ideas without knowing it, and can see them before my very eyes". George commented: "At that moment [Goethe] recognised that in himself had awakened a new faculty of the inner eye, which could directly apprehend the being within the form… This is a form of dynamic thinking through which we can all enter the divinity within nature and experience how it works in the infinite complexity of the wondrous whole... This approach has, to me, been a revelation of deep importance". He went on: "The best instruction on this approach is to be found in Rudolf Steiner's book Knowledge of the Higher Worlds: How is it attained?" [12] Elsewhere George wrote of this fundamental book as being "a manual for holistic meditation and thinking, for Steiner developed the Goethean vision and techniques and carried it forward into a science of the invisible".[13]

Years later George wrote and lectured on what he called, The Active Eye in Architecture[14] inspired by Steiner's books and lectures on Goethe's work on the principle of metamorphosis.[15] Through his study of the animal kingdom in the light of Steiner's spiritual science George also found a new relationship to it. In his book Operation Redemption he acknowledged his debt to Steiner's conception of the process of evolution, a universal process embracing not only humankind but also the Earth and the animal kingdom. He gave many lectures along the lines indicated by Steiner.[16]

In the 1940s George joined the Anthroposophical Society, which has headquarters at the Goetheanum in Dornach, Switzerland, and "read Steiner avidly". It may be said that George not only read but also inwardly digested what he read. He had the outstanding gift of being able to grasp the essence of profound and complex subjects expressed in an idiom to which the English are not accustomed. George recognised that Steiner's teaching, being both philosophic and esoteric, presents a serious difficulty to the English, who by nature are more interested in the exoteric, the outer world of concrete fact, than in esoteric development, and who do not readily grasp the importance of conceptual thought in relation to daily life. Steiner's teaching is mainly in direct conceptual form, or in bare statements of what he claimed to be esoteric fact. Steiner himself repeatedly emphasised that one should regard the statements made by him as so many hypotheses, to be held in the mind and measured, tested by facts in the exoteric world which are available to all who take the trouble to seek and find them. George always endeavoured to do so.

George invited those he called his "heroes from the Anthroposophical Movement" to lecture at Attingham - including Dr. Lehrs, Dr.Stein and Dr. Karl König[17]- but found that the central European approach, coupled with a terminology peculiar to Steiner's Spiritual Science, did not find the resonance in the course participants for which he had hoped.

In this connection, George wrote in Exploration into God. He said, "I had to find ways of presenting these new ideas in a generally acceptable English idiom". Without diluting or misrepresenting, he was most successful in this endeavour. One of the wonderful tools he took to his aid was the use of poetry for which he had a passionate love and a remarkable repertoire at his disposal - most of the poems he declaimed he knew by heart. "Poetry", he wrote, "can be used in active cultivation of Imagination. It was really as if the poets themselves came to contribute to the lectures!"[18] "Poetry rightly used and rethought can become an instrument for awakening the atrophied organs of perception of the invisible worlds…"[19] Through the use of poetry he could inspire in those who heard him insight into such profound matters as the meaning of life on earth, reincarnation, spiritual evolution, and life after death, an insight which he had gleaned from his study of Steiner's Spiritual Science.

Consonant with his acceptance of the reality of reincarnation brought home by Dr. Stein in 1942, George studied and imbibed numerous lectures by Rudolf Steiner on the theme of repeated earth lives and life after death. One lecture in particular, The Dead are with Us, made a deep impression upon him and prepared the ground for an experience which remained vibrantly alive in George's heart and mind for the rest of his life.[20]

It was to the conception of life after death and the establishing of a living connection with those who have died that George was referring when he mentioned the death of a very dear friend and colleague in 1958. George touches upon this experience in Exploration into God. "I have described how the single lecture by Dr. Walter Johannes Stein in 1942 lifted me clear of agnosticism and released the spiritual vision. But still it was largely theoretical. […] After ten years at Attingham, I had given many lectures touching on spiritual themes and was learning how to weave this holistic vision into a setting of open adult education. But then in 1958 came an event which was the absolute inner turning point. This was the sudden death in America of my great friend and colleague. Till now my lectures had been based on theoretical understanding, an endeavour to present Steiner's teaching in simple words to the general public, and naturally our attitude to the after-life came in. We were understanding the truth of pre-existence and the implication of Earth as training school for immortal souls in their long education. Now I had been hit by the event which lifted the whole outlook from theory to direct experience. I now knew without any shadow of doubt that the spark of divinity in us cannot possibly die… The great truth is that death in all its forms is the great educator, to teach us that the divine droplet in us always was and always will be."

George also then knew that what Steiner stated as a matter of fact in lectures such as The Dead are with Us and The Establishment of Mutual Relations between the Living and the so-called Dead'[21] can become a living and abiding experience for those who acknowledge the all-imbuing presence and activity of the Spirit, not only in the spiritual world, but also in our life on Earth. This experience of the reality of the eternal spirit in the human being, of the process of reincarnation, of the inner communion between souls in the spiritual world and those still on Earth, was strengthened when, in 1960/61, George came across and imbibed a lecture by Steiner entitled Links between the Living and the Dead.[22] He wrote: "The whole quality of my thinking and lecturing was enhanced and lifted"[23].

Of links with those who have passed through the portal of death George wrote: "The basic truth is that the being from the Higher World speaks to us from within our own thinking. Mind blends with mind… Sometimes we may know with absolute certainty that we are thinking or speaking as a channel for a being out of the body. When a dear friend 'dies' we may at first feel that he or she is lost to us. Then we realise that, freed from the body, they are very close, drawn by the bond of love"[24].

Already in his early studies of Steiner's spiritual science, particularly in regard to the nature of knowledge, George began to find answers to such questions as: How reliable is knowledge to convey to us the real truth of things? Can it be objective, or does it do no more than reflect our subjectivity? Are we free or determined by external conditions? What is freedom? It was in studying Steiner's fundamental book upon philosophy, The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity,[25] that he began to find answers to these ultimate questions of human existence. What particularly struck a chord in George, and found reflection in the core of his own thinking, was the assertion by Steiner that free spiritual activity - the human ability to think and act independently of physical nature, i.e. sense-free thinking - is not only possible but the appropriate path for us to gain true knowledge of ourselves and of the universe.[26]

In Operation Redemption George quotes two passages from Steiner's autobiography which he found invaluable in coming to a better understanding of what Steiner, in The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity[27], designates "sense-free thinking" and in the forming of his holistic world-view - themes which George developed in a variety of ways in his lectures and books:[28]

The materialist contemplates matter without becoming aware that he is really in the presence of spirit which is simply manifesting itself in material form. He does not know that spirit metamorphoses itself into matter in order to attain ways of action which are possible only in this metamorphosis. Spirit must first take on the form of a material brain in order to lead in this form the life of the conceptual world, which can bestow upon man in his earthly life a freely acting self-consciousness. To be sure, in the brain spirit "mounts upward" out of matter, but only after the material brain has risen out of spirit.[29]

Whoever recognises as an attribute of thinking its capacity of perception extending beyond appre-

hension through the senses must necessarily also attribute to thinking objects existing beyond the limits of mere sense-perceptible reality. But these objects of thinking are Ideas. As thinking takes possession of the Idea, it merges with the primordial foundation of the world;[30] that which works without enters into the spirit of man; he becomes one with objective reality at its highest potency. Becoming aware of the Idea within reality is the true communion of man.[31]

George occasionally quoted the last sentence on its own. For him it imparted an insight of paramount significance.

* * * * * * * *

It is beyond the scope of these few pages to go into detail, but anyone familiar with the teaching of Rudolf Steiner can readily recognise that George spoke and wrote out of Anthroposophy when he discussed such matters as, for instance, the Spiritual Hierarchies and their relation to Mankind,[32] the Cosmic Christ,[33] the Second Coming[34], the Buddha and Christ[35], The Significance for our Time of the Archangel Michael,[36] the Gospels, the Nature of Evil.[37]

As an educationalist who sensed that it was vital to meet half way the variety of groups of people he spoke to and wrote for, George delved into and learnt from spiritual disciplines other than that presented by Steiner. However, as he wrote at the end of the Preface to A Vision of the Aquarian Age, "Here at the outset I should make it clear that one cannot possibly, even in a work far longer than this, do justice to the immensely broad movement of spiritual awakening that characterises our age. One must speak out of one's own frame of reference, one's own background, one's own experience and study. In my case these were profoundly influenced by the work and writings of Rudolf Steiner."

* * * * * * * *

Fifty-one years after hearing of Rudolf Steiner for the first time George wrote to a friend, "I feel it is rather wonderful how we draw closer to Steiner in warmth & love as the years (as our age) go on… Steiner - dare I say personally - grows closer & warmer. I feel a wonderful contact".

December 2000
B.J.Nesfield-Cookson



1 First published in 1991. The third of a trilogy following A Vision of the Aquarian Age (1977) and Operation Redemption (1981)

2 George's family -with the exception of his younger sister Katherine - was agnostic. His father was an avowed atheist. See Exploration into God (1991), p.45.

3 1861-1925

4 Dr. Walter Johannes Stein, born in Vienna in 1891, died in London 1957.

5 Rudolf Steiner described Anthroposophy as "A path of knowledge leading the spiritual in man to the spiritual in the Universe", a statement which George quoted on occasion.

6 See Exploration into God pp. 60-61 & 172

7 His seminal book Man or Matter (first published by Faber & Faber in 1951) was based on the work of Goethe and Steiner. It was written during and just after the Second World War.

8 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832).

9 See Operation Redemption (1981), pp.85-87.

10 Author's italics

11 Quoted from Goethean Science (1988), Steiner's introduction to Goethe's Natural-Scientific Works. George studied an earlier edition entitled Goethe the Scientist published in 1950

12 Exploration into God, p. 86.

13 Operation Redemption, p. 87.

14 The booklet The Active Eye in Architecture was first published by The Wrekin Trust in 1977. See also the chapter entitled 'Exploring into God in Nature' in Exploration into God, also chapter 8 in Operation Redemption.

15 See George's statement re Steiner's development of Goethe's doctrine of metamorphosis in Summons to a High Crusade p. 106 (The Findhorn Press), 1986.

16 George made a close study of a series of lectures given by Steiner entitled Man as Symphony of The Creative Word, also of a fundamental book by Steiner, An Outline of Esoteric Science which provides not only a wealth of insight into cosmic and human evolution but also methods and exercises for attaining higher levels of consciousness. George also acknowledged his debt to a pupil of Steiner, Professor Hermann Poppelbaum, who scientifically developed Steiner's spiritual researches in, inter alia, two books: Man and Animal and A New Zoology. See Operation Redemption, chapter 11.

17 The founder of the Camphill Homes for children and adults in need of special care inspired by principles indicated and elaborated upon by Rudolf Steiner

18 Exploration into God p. 64. See also his collection of poems, with commentary, published in Magic Casements, with the sub-title The Use of Poetry in the Expanding of Consciousness (1980). Also chapter six in A Tent in Which to Pass a Summer Night (1977). Published in collaboration with Belle Valerie Gaunt

19 Magic Casements, p. 1.

20 First published in English in 1945. See also George's lecture 'Reincarnation: The Earth as Training Ground'. Wrekin Trust Paper No. 102, 1976, o/p

21 Published 1949 in Occult Research into Life between Death and a New Life.

22 Published in English in 1960

23 Exploration into God p. 61

24 Ibid. p. 134

25 English translations of Die Philosophie der Freiheit were published with this title from 1922 to 1963. It appeared in 1964 in a new translation by Michael Wilson, whom George knew well, under the title The Philosophy of Freedom. The basis for a modern world conception. George was familiar with both translations.

26 See, inter alia, George's lecture of 3rd March, 1967, entitled Rudolf Steiner's Life, Thought and Achievement, published as an Attingham Park Paper.

27 See note 26.

28 Published under several different titles in English. George was familiar with two translations: The Story of my Life (1928) and The Course of my Life (1951)

29 Quoted, with slight amendments, from the 1928 English edition of Steiner's autobiography. George often quoted from memory, hence the occasional discrepancies between his version and the official translations. See Operation Redemption p. 82.

30 This last sentence has also been translated as "it merges with the fundamental existence of the world".

31 This translation is from the 1951 edition of Steiner's autobiography. George's rendering, from memory, differs in vocabulary, but the meaning is faithfully maintained. See Operation Redemption, pp. 82-83.

32 George found inspiration from such lectures by Steiner as, for instance, The Influences of Spiritual Beings upon Man.

33 See Operation Redemption, chapter 3 The Cosmic Christ in the New Age.

34 See Operation Redemption, chapter 3 'The Cosmic Christ in the New Age'.

35 Ibid, chapter 4, "Thoughts on the Second Coming".

36 Ibid. chapter 6. George had studied a number of lectures by Steiner concerned with the relationship between the Buddha and Christ

37 See chapter 5 in Operation Redemption, "Michael and all Angels".

38 See, for instance, A Vision of the Aquarian Age, pp. 126-138.Among other lectures by Steiner on the nature of evil, George had made a close study of the series entitled The Influences of Lucifer and Ahriman

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