The mental health of Rudolf Steiner seems to have turned into an increasingly popular topic (see post comments) over the past week(s). I wouldn’t call it a discussion, as it is quite difficult to discuss with repeated and boldly simplified assertions — with not much substance or background — that Steiner was mentally ill. The only “arguments” backing up the assertion being a couple of quotes from Steiner’s work. We all know Steiner’s work contains a large number of nutty claims and ideas. But as I have written numerous times before, saying nutty things, being mistaken, or professing beliefs that are untrue isn’t in itself a sign that someone is insane. And Steiner’s sanity (or insanity) doesn’t change the nature of the beliefs: he could be perfectly sane and be wrong, he could be bat-shit insane and be right. To know if the claims are accurate or inaccurate, true or untrue, the analysis clearly requires something more. To claim Steiner was insane, because he said something nutty about potatoes, spiritual beings or root races, doesn’t really cut it. To claim that all the things he said were bad, because he was insane, doesn’t either.
This said, I do find Steiner’s mind and personality completely intriguing. Whether or not he was sane. It doesn’t have anything to do with one quote here and there, and the contents of these quotes, because in themselves they aren’t interesting. I’d like to see at least an attempt to explain why the contents of a certain quote should lead to the conclusion that Steiner was insane; preferably the quote would be put into context, the context of the text, of other texts, of Steiner’s life and his other beliefs. Then there would be some sense to it, which frankly is lacking from simplified arguments like: look what Steiner said about potatoes, thus speaks an insane man.
There’s no doubt Steiner wasn’t the average guy — he wasn’t exactly the epitome of normality. He did have wild ideas, did experience — or claimed to experience — some weird stuff, held very unconventional beliefs about the material and immaterial world. He was quite nutty, actually. Of course there’s a possibility he was insane — even clinically insane — periodically or even all his life. You could certainly explore his works and find material to substantiate such a claim. For example, find instances where he could be interpreted as someone having a visual hallucination. Sure. But you’d need an idea of what his illness and its symptoms were, there has to be some kind of reasoning behind it. Not just “he was insane and if you don’t realize it you’re a liar and an idiot” (or whatever). And as far as the visual goes, and also the intensity of the spiritual experience, I have — and I’m certain others have — suggested epilepsy (or temporal lobe epilepsy). It could certainly explain some of Steiner’s experiences (for those of us who do not wish to rely on the explanatory value of a supernatural cause), and it would also explain why he could function so well and so consistently in life. Mental illness, in the form of clinical insanity (rather than a mere divergence from the “normal”), seems unlikely because he was stable. You could say that having a group of adherents made it possible for him to remain in society or to uphold an image of sanity rather than be locked up in an asylum or, at least, being regarded as insane by his environment — but no, that cannot be the only explanation. His behaviour, his dependability (and, if one reads the lectures, even though the content is at times pretty nutty, he is coherent and making sense within the (anthroposophical) framework) and his ability to handle an extensive workload (lecturing, writing, travelling, consulting) are all factors which seem to indicate that he wasn’t a case for the insanity ward anyway. Or a case for relative social exclusion as a mad man, had he not been capable of attracting followers inclined to accept and appreciate his visions.
Lots of people have strange experiences, spiritual experiences, experiences which fly in the face of reality. Mild delusion and even hallucinatory episodes may not be that uncommon at all. Not everything is insanity, neither is the line separating sanity from insanity absolute and uncomplicated.
Gurus are not easily accommodated within our current psychiatric taxonomy. Neither their acute periods of mental distress nor the settled belief systems which follow can be dismissed as forms of insanity unless we are prepared to widen our concepts of insanity to a ridiculous extent. Gurdjieff and Steiner, though neither suffering from paranoid schizophrenia nor being psychotic in the sense of being socially disabled, share certain characteristics with patients whom psychiatrists would designate as paranoid. … As I have indicated, it is indeed grandiose to create one’s own cosmogony in total disregard of accepted scientific opinion. Both Steiner and Gurdjieff did this. … Steiner, in addition to inventing his own history of the universe, believed that he had special powers of observation which revealed the spiritual reality which lay behind material appearances. […] The belief systems propounded by gurus like those of Steiner and Gurdjieff may be thought delusional, but so-called normal people also express eccentric ideas. For example, a substantial number of people believe that they have seen flying saucers, or that corn-circles are the work of aliens. But we do not judge such people to be psychotic unless there is other evidence of mental malfunction or social incompetence. … The diagnosis of mental illness should not be made on the evidence of beliefs alone, however eccentric these may appear. I have tried to demonstrate that a new belief system, whether it is considered delusional or not, is an attempt at solving problems. Striving to make sense of strange mental experiences is only one example of the universal human desire to bring order out of chaos. [Storr, A. Feet of Clay, p 170-1.]