American Transcendentalism and
Goethean Conversation


Carl H. Flygt - February 2007


Conversation theory as I describe it is an extension of American transcendentalism, which in the 19th century was given its clearest expression by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882). Emerson's rambling and inconsistent style, which discourages any final analysis of his philosophy, nevertheless succeeds in expressing maxims and principles that are necessary if the cosmic spiritual world, the world we presumably inhabit before birth and after death, and which we contact in special dreams and meditative states of consciousness, is to be made tangibly a part of and ultimately to subsume this world through specialized social practices. The American spirit of enterprise and initiative, of mutual trust and justice under law, of pragmatism and practicality and of the love of goodness and good things is perfectly suited to anthroposophical conversation.  I propose to discover how the transcendental spirit in human consciousness can be expected to function in a type of conversation that is as much American in conception and attitude as it is universal in ultimate purport.


Emerson's objective is to accomplish "Man Thinking", the scholar who cheers, raises and guides men by showing them facts amidst appearances, the man who sees through the pretensions of the world and who pierces with clairvoyance into the cosmic order behind our self-consciousness and experience. Such men and such women alone are candidates for Goethean conversation, and when they treat with one another they are surrounded by barriers of mutual respect, as sovereign State with sovereign State, tending to true union as well as to greatness. Emerson's vision of human relationships is of deities on Olympic peaks, meeting for a time to communicate truth to one another, and then withdrawing into solitary contemplation. Similarly, Goethean conversation is something we practice as an art, and as a spiritual, social science as well, full of mystery and unknowable outcomes, of precision of focus and expression and of moments of profound self-consciousness and social solidarity. The transcendentalist, Emersonian formula to accomplish that art and that social science is: study nature and the mind as a law of nature; read good books; and take action by speaking in public.


For Emerson, "know thyself" and "study nature" are one maxim. The reasons for asserting this equality seem plain enough. Every day the sun; and after sunset, the stars. Ever blow the winds; ever grows the grass. Every day men and women, conversing, beholding and beholden. The Goethean scholar is he of all men whom this spectacle most engages. What is nature to him? There is never a beginning, there is never an end in this inexplicable continuity of the web of God, but always a circular power returning to itself. Therein it resembles his own spirit, whose beginning, whose end he can never find. But a unifying instinct emerges and goes on tying things together, diminishing anomalies, discovering roots running under ground, perceiving that objects have a law which is also a law of the human mind. And what is that Root? It is the soul of the Scholar's soul. The exercises of preparation and study are for the sake of the beauty in the mind, and that beauty alone is the fitting agency for Goethean conversation.


The next great influence on the spirit of the conversationist is the mind of the Past, in whatever form that mind is inscribed. Books are the best type of influence from the past, but art and architecture are also good. The theory of books is noble indeed. The scholar of the First Age received into him the world about, brooded thereon, gave it a new arrangement in his mind and uttered it again. It came into him life; it went out from him truth. It came to him short-lived actions; it went out immortal thoughts. This is the theory of conversational reproduction. It transmutes life into truth and makes conversation into a reading of a luminous, mystical Text that flashes out indifferently in the minds of all present. With the best books, we get the conviction that one nature wrote and the same nature reads. In Goethean conversation, we know simultaneously that one nature writes and one nature reads alike.


Finally, the value of action, like that of books and better than books, is that it is a resource. There goes in the world a notion that the scholar should be a recluse, a valetudinarian - as unfit for any handiwork or public labor as a penknife for an axe. For the scholar however, action is subordinate but essential. Inaction is cowardice, and there can be no scholar without a heroic mind. The preamble of thought, the transition through which it passes from the unconscious to the conscious, is action. Only so much do we know, as we have lived. We learn immediately from any speaker how much he has already lived, through the poverty or the splendor of his speech. Speaking well in anthroposophical conversation is sine qua non for awakening to self-consciousness and healthy clairvoyance. The world, this shadow of the soul, this anthroposophical gathering, lies wide around. Its attractions are the keys which unlock our thoughts and make us acquainted with ourselves. We run eagerly into this resounding tumult. We grasp the hands of those next to us and take our places in the ring to suffer and to work, taught by an instinct, that so shall the dumb abyss be made vocal with speech. We pierce its order; we dissipate its fear; we dispose of it within the circuit of our expanding life. The true scholar grudges every opportunity of such action past by as a loss of power.


Anthroposophy contains all of the elements that Emerson describes as essential for the rise of spirit up from matter and out into the starry spaces. What is written plainly both in the transcendental, American optimism of Emerson and the profound, occult logic of Steinerian anthroposophy is that this uplift is to be accomplished socially, by public adherence to practical principles and clear thinking. We now have an explicit theory of Goethean conversation. With this accomplished and put to practical use, it is only a matter of time before we as anthroposophists feel ourselves walk on our own feet, work with our own hands and speak our own minds. With true conversation again visiting the world, a dread of man and a love of man will be a wall of defense and a wreath of joy around all. Then a nation of men will for the first time exist, because each will know himself inspired by the Divine spirit which also inspires all others.


Reference:  Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The American Scholar. Oration before the Phi Beta Kappa Society, Cambridge, MA. 1837.