di ANTONIO SALTINI
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|Bones and offals unearthed at the solemn spring feast at the biodynamic farm La Farnia after all the putrefied matter has absorberd, during the winter, in the heart womb, the propitious influences of comets and planets (photo A. Saltini 1988).|
Pseudo Science and Hocus Pocus
Amongst the various sects championing an agriculture that is “alternative” to that predicated upon modern sciences, one that merits special mention was the emergence of adepts who professed to follow the creeds of Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian-born seer whose philosophy of “Anthroposophy” would generate a whole host of pamphlets and writings that form part of the magic-cabbalistic-occultist literature which has been available for the unwary since the very dawn of printing.
In his incisive discussion of the founders of the most extravagant pseudo-scientific doctrines advocated over the last hundred years or so, Martin Gardner, a mathematician and historian of science, gives an extraordinarily insightful account of the contorted logic employed by those who profess a new “Truth”. Typically, such figures are eager to surround themselves with a school that is both sect and commercial enterprise, churning out the works of someone who claims to possess an idea which – at a single blow – will undermine knowledge the West has slowly accumulated since the days of Heraclitus. (Throughout the centuries, such tracts have, it seems, been a more profitable publishing venture than the works of men such as Galileo or Newton.) And a necessary part of the role of seer is the proclamation of oneself as a persecuted victim of academic science, excluded for no other reason than envy. Such a misunderstood genius necessarily places his faith in coming generations. Truth will triumph when an enlightened future finally rejects the supposed “knowledge” acquired thanks to figures from Bacon to Einstein; when the doctrine professed by a genius slighted by his contemporaries is finally espoused.
Rudolf Steiner is the perfect embodiment of such a founder of a pseudo-science and of the sect necessary to preach it. One is, therefore, rather surprised that Gardner does not include him in his review of misunderstood demiurges. And that omission is all the more surprising when one recalls that, having stressed the historical role in pseudo-science of the great poet Wolfgang Goethe (whose infamous Theory of Colour was totally unsupported by experimental evidence), Gardner highlights the proliferation of pseudoscientific theories in Germany immediately before – and during – the days of Nazism. Hitler and other Nazi leaders, after all, held all sorts of bizarre anthropological beliefs resting on esoteric arguments, astrology and Satanism; the concentration camps themselves were the culmination of a profession of “scientific” arguments regarding “race”; and more than one of Hitler’s associates combined occult practices with vegetarian extremism motivated by the most fanciful biological arguments.
This was the intellectual climate within which Steiner professed his ideas, claiming to complete the scientific work of Goethe himself. As pseudo-scientific theories were preparing the way for all the horrors of Nazism, the German seer gathered together his acolytes and dictated his recipe for a new – “biodynamic” – agriculture. Subsequently, his works on spiritism and initiation, upon encounters with Satan, would be conveniently forgotten, but that theory of bio-dynamism would make Steiner the master of one of the most widely professed “faiths” underpinning alternative agriculture.
It is not difficult to get the measure of Steiner’s ideas if one has any knowledge of the history of Western science, and of the physical/astronomical theorems which Greek, Roman and Medieval thinkers advanced to explain the supposed power heavenly bodies exerted over the time and size of agricultural yields. All the German does is throw together fanciful notions of his own with the most out-dated of concepts. To see this, one needs solely to cite: the agrarian astrology which Greek Georgic authors drew from Persian texts on astronomy, identifying the key to astral influence upon biological functions as lying in the motion of the planets; the argument that Virgil advanced to give a preeminent role to the constellations within the Zodiac; the Aristotelianism that medieval scholars employed to claim that the essential role here was played by the Moon, identified as mediating the influence exerted by all stars and planets. Drawing upon these astrological beliefs of the past, Steiner jumbles together notions to form his own, far from lucid, theories. The fertility of the soil, he argues, is directly subject to the astral influences that pervade it. Thus, he is eager to teach agriculture how to proceed in such a way that fields will absorb the maximum quantity of cosmic energy, becoming efficient storage units for sidereal forces.
According to Steiner, the influences of the stars is exerted, to a greater or lesser degree, upon minerals, plants and animals, which – he claims – form part of a seamless hierarchy; indeed, some minerals are so close to being plants and some plants so close to being animals, that between a man and a stone there is a unbroken sequence on intermediate beings. Pseudo-physics and pseudo-biology then allow Steiner to develop this notion of the hierarchy of the natural world into a theory that claims it is possible to capture the astral influences in the organs of certain animals filled with the parts of certain plants. So, for example, the bladder of a massively-wooded stag (the antlers served as the animal’s sideral-energy receptors) could, when filled with particular rotting flowers, become a very effective “battery” of cosmic flux, as is the skull of an ox filled with certain rotting barks. Such accumulators of astral energy were to be buried in autumn so that during the winter – the period when natural life was in a phase of stasis – they might collect beneficial cosmic rays; then, in springtime, the farmer was to dig up the bladders and skulls and scatter over his fields their putrid contents: a much less costly method of fertilizing soil than the use of ammonium sulphate or calcium perphosphates – and much more effective. To meet the various needs of different plants, the farmer might also collect astral rays in a tub of pure water, into which he would, by the light of the stars, pour sand, the most inert of minerals (again much less costly than urea or calcium nitrate). Stirring with a ladle enhanced the absorption of these rays, turning the sand into “stardust”, which would exert its extraordinary powers upon growing plants. Of course, Steiner’s recipes for capturing astral rays do not stop there – but I think this is sufficient to show the essence of the agronomical teachings of this pupil of Mephistopheles.
With a certain degree of ingenuity one could classify the German seer’s ideas as just another episode in the age-old history of rural witchcraft, but I think the author of a work dealing with history of science must also point out why the German necromancer should be considered the supreme occultist of the twentieth century and – given Corporal Adolf Hitler espoused his doctrines in trying to impose a New Order on the world – the most dangerous Satanist in history. These reasons lie essentially in a key “cosmological” idea developed in dozens of semi-incomprehensible books. In these (see, for example, La scienza occulta nelle sue linee generali, Editrice antroposofica, Milano 1969, pag. 207-221), the master explains that Atlantis, the submerged continent whose existence is unquestioned by all the wizards of Antiquity, was populated by human creatures whom astral super-powers had created through a “mutation” of living larvae taken from the Sun, the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Pluto. The larvae collected from each planet had completely different attitudes – a point essential to Steiner’s cosmology. So, for example, the migrants from some planet (Steiner omits to tell us which) were prepared to accept the “mystery of Christ”, while those from other planets were so deeply under the influence of Lucifer (vices, violence, execrable habits) as to be incapable of any intellectual and moral development. Thus, when, after the disappearance of the first continent, its inhabitants were dispersed to settle those which, in the meantime, had fortunately emerged above sea level, they were divided into different “strains” (probably it would be more exact to say “races”). Some were ready for the glorious march of intellectual and spiritual progress, others were irreversibily destined to an “inferior” life; and as “inferior”, they could legitimately be enslaved by the “superior” strains of humanity. Enough has been said to show why such ideas would have been music to ears of the frustrated little Hitler, providing him with a “cosmology” that underpinned theories in which the Third Reich would so hideously revel.
Necromancy and pedology
Steiner’s interest in agronomy had arisen solely out of a need to reward the devotion of certain acolytes who did work in the field of agriculture. However, his precepts would later be combined with authentic agronomical knowledge by a disciple with more relevant expertise, Ehrenfried Pfeiffer. According to his biographers, this man had vast experience in running farms on both sides of the Atlantic, and in a book that enjoyed dazzling commercial success – Soil Fertility, Renewal and Preservation, first printed, with a different title, in 1938 - he would combine the master’s teachings with two equally significant components, one ethical/historical, the other more strictly scientific. The first of these was an emphatic contrast between a preindustrial rural world characterised by harmony, wisdom and natural balance, and an image of the modern countryside as having fallen prey to the demon of profit, the Dark Force that undermined each and every moral, social and comic order. Within Pfeiffer’s bucolic vision, all the evils which history tells us existed in the European countryside of the past have vanished: there were no bullying feudal lords or swingeing royal taxes; men and animals did not fall victim to disease and epidemic; illiteracy and usury did not exist. What we have, instead, is a glorious rural world in which everyone lived in harmony, enjoying security and a dignified and gratifying existence – all of which would be shattered by the cruel eruption on the scene of the profit motive. As a result of this intrusive new arrival, there would be constant striving for ever higher agricultural yields, which brought with it a number of corollaries: the need to buy machinery, seeds and fertilizers. Concern over expenditure and profit margins had thus initiated a vicious circle, stripping farmers of the calm and security they had once enjoyed.
The second, more strictly scientific, element introduced into the argument by Pfeiffer was his adherence to a modern doctrine of soil science which had been established by Vasily Vasilevich Dokuchaev and then developed by a series of disciples in the USSR, the USA and Great Britain. As we have seen, the linchpin of Dokuchaev’s theory was the assimilation of soil to a living being, each type of terrain being the result of interactions between mother rock, atmospheric agents, plants and animals, all part of a living process. Originating in a specific combination of pedogenetic factors, each area of soil had, at the very moment that man put it to the plough, specific chemical and biological characteristics. And it was on those characteristics that the soil’s fertility hinged, so once man had begun to exploit arable land he should do everything possible to preserve those initial conditions in order to be able to exploit the soil for as long as possible. In virgin land, fertility was constantly regenerated through natural processes, whilst the farmer had to use a body of procedures in order to maintain the integrity of the natural resources that he had appropriated for his own use. Based upon the use of fertilizers, modern agriculture was claimed to be the most dramatic distortion of that need to conserve the initial fertility of soil; it would, it was said, ineluctably lead to sterility. Having launched this anathema against contemporary agricultural techniques, Pfeiffer presents his own method for the systematic regeneration of soil fertility. However, this boils down to nothing more than the canons of classical agronomy based upon crop rotation and livestock farming – the method which, as we have seen, was first fully outlined by Albrecht Thaer. Of course, there is still the invaluable aid Steiner’s animal innards and dandelions: Pfeiffer has no doubt these have a vital role to play in protecting the original fertility of fields against the encroachments of modern agriculture.
From Antonio Saltini, Agrarian Sciences in the West, translation by Jeremy James Scott, vol. VII. chap. 18, A Horror of Chemicals: The Teachings and Theories of Alternative Agriculture, Nuova Terra Antica, Florence 2015.
Già Docente di Storia dell'agricoltura all'Università di Milano, giornalista, storico delle scienze agrarie. Ha diretto la rivista mensile di agricoltura Genio Rurale ed è stato vicedirettore del settimanale, sempre di argomento agricolo, Terra e Vita. E' autore della Storia delle Scienze Agrarie opera in 7 volumi.