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Does Rudolf Steiner Believe in Viruses?

Does Rudolf Steiner Believe in Viruses?

Here is a great example of why we have to be careful with Steiner quotes. This one is from GA 185, 3rd lecture (From Symptom to Reality in Modern History).

“But bacilli, as such, are of course in no way connected with disease. In phenomena of this kind we must realize that just as behind the symptoms of history we are dealing with psychic and spiritual experiences, so too behind somatic symptoms we are dealing with experiences of a cosmological order.”

So we know exactly what Steiner is saying here, right? Or do we? Here is the paragraph from which the quote is taken. I did my own translation, since the translator of that book smoothed out the original quite a bit (and introduced a couple of errors):

“If history is to find the path to what I have sketched through symptomatology to the inner, then medicine, for example, and hygiene and improved sanitation systems, have to find the way to a symptomatology of the outer peripherally-based causes. Just as current history does not penetrate the realities, so likewise modern medicine—the modern sanitation regimen, modern hygiene—fails to penetrate to the peripheral symptomatic causes. And I have emphasized again and again: the one cannot help the other, no matter how thoroughly you go over things, because the point is that today these things are in the hands of those who are tending in the wrong direction. It really has to become the responsibility of those who move in the right direction. Certainly, the external facts are as true as they are true, that King James I had a physical appearance way or the other as I characterized it to you; so, of course, the external facts are also true—that one or the other type of bacillus has something to do with, say, the flu, which is now so widespread. But if it is true that, for example, for the spread of a certain epidemic disease the rats are disease carriers—I just want to take the thought now—you cannot say that the disease comes from the rats, but you have always conceived that the rats spread this disease. In itself, of course, the bacilli have nothing to do with anything that is the disease. What is actually happening with the appearance of epidemics is that, just as we are dealing with the symptoms of history in the case of soul-spiritual events, behind the external-physical disease manifestations we are dealing with the symptoms of cosmological events. In other cases, of course, other things are at cause. What is especially important in such cases is the rhythmical occurrence of cosmic events. It has to be studied. The question must be asked: In what cosmic constellation did we live in when today’s [1918] flu appeared in a milder form as the influenza of the 1880s? In what type of cosmic constellation do we live now? How has the cosmic rhythm that has taken place since the influenza at that time occurred completed as the somewhat more severe form of the flu today?”

Lecture of October 20, 1918, Dornach. Translated from the revised 3rd edition of 1982.

Here is the paragraph that follows. You can compare my fairly literal translation to the published version on RSArchive and see what got lost.

“There are areas of the world, all you have to do is light a scrap of paper and all kinds of vapors come up from the earth; this is the Solfatara area in Italy [a volcanic crater near Naples]. This proves that you can do something above the earth, and the earth sends up things in connection as a natural effect. Yes, you may think it is impossible for something to happen on the sun—despite the fact that the sun’s rays fall to earth every day—which has significance for what rises up from the earth and has a relationship to human life, and that this in turn varies depending on the different regions of the earth? Do you really think that people will actually learn something about these things—before they rush past—to get to a proper cosmology through a soul-spiritual knowledge? To be sure, it has been taken as a foolishness—and in this way it is foolishness—that people have said that humanity’s tendency towards war is related to the sunspot intervals. But there comes a point where even that is no longer completely foolish, where the appearance of certain pathological impulses in the life of the temperaments is in fact related to such cosmological phenomena as the rhythmically recurring sunspot intervals. And when this tiny society, these little lords—bacilli, rats—really carry something that has a cosmological connection from one person to another, then it is only something secondary that is so easily proven, through which, of course, one finds a big audience; but the main thing it is not. And above all, you won’t get to the main point if you don’t really have the will to study behind the peripheral symptoms.”

The reference by Steiner to sunspots and war is likely a response to the hypothesis of Alexander Chizhevsky, who developed the idea around 1916 and refined it in the years thereafter. I couldn’t find publishing history, so it is not clear how Steiner heard about it. But the idea is still circulating around the internet today.

This lecture was stengraphically recorded by Helen Finckh. The original stenogram exists in the archive and was consulted to clarify a few questionable sections in her reconstructed text manuscript for the revised third German edition of 1982 (this is noted on page 233 of the book). Finckh was a professional stenographer who recorded most of Steiner’s Dornach lectures. Hers are some of the most reliable lecture recordings among other reasons because she captured all his words, including digressions, half sentences, asides, etc. and when she didn’t, she noted a gap. You can kind of get a feel for that in the way I chose to translate the passage.

By contrast another regular stenographer of Steiner lectures was Walter Vegelahn, a business man who had taken stenography in school. He recorded Steiner’s lectures almost from the beginning, but he was initially only taking notes for himself. He tended to take down the main point, leaving off the asides and digressions. We should be incredibly grateful that he kept notes at all, or we wouldn’t have much of a record at all of Steiner’s pre-1909 lectures (GA 88-115). At the same time, it is much harder to play “Steiner said” with those lectures, since they are not really word for word. Around 1909 the movement began to organize professional stenographers for a permanent, accurate record with an intention towards publishing, and despite Steiner’s reluctance. Very often the published lectures (especially in English) tend to give the impression of greater precision in the reconstructed language than the source material deserves.

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