There are different approaches one can take in relation to the concept of the ‘guardian of the threshold’ in Rudolf Steiner’s work. One may view this concept from a comparative perspective, investigating similarities to other figures, such as the devil in Christianity and Mara in Buddhism.1 Such a comparative perspective may result in the ‘reciprocal illumination’ of terms from different traditions.2 One may also view the ‘guardian’ concept in relation to certain experiences one can have during meditation. Recent studies indicate that experiences involving the ‘guardian’ during meditation indeed take place and may be common.3 For example, around 25 % of regular meditators have had very unpleasant experiences while meditating.4 For Steiner, the encounter with the ‘guardian of the threshold’ is a key experience for meditators, an experience where they must face the hidden, difficult aspects of themselves. Steiner’s idea of the ‘guardian’ may contribute to this kind of research in that it exemplifies how challenging experiences may be viewed in relation to narrative structures focusing on personal growth. One may also view Steiner’s notion of the ‘guardian’ in a psychological perspective, investigating the connection between nightmare experiences and sleep paralysis.5 That such a connection may exist can be inferred from commonalties between nightmare and sleep paralysis experiences (such as the experience of an ‘evil presence’), or it can be made based on some statements by Steiner.6 In any case, such a perspective may be taken as the starting point for a ‘building block’ approach to spiritual experience,7 which investigates how certain perhaps physiologically or otherwise conditioned phenomena give rise to interpreting the experience of an ‘evil presence’ positively, namely as encounter with a spiritual entity.8
Regardless of which research approach one wishes to pursue, the account of Steiner’s concept of the ‘guardian of the threshold’ needs to be comprehensive. This is the first research goal of the present article: To create an overview of Steiner’s concept of the ‘guardian’ based on all explicit statements Steiner has made about this ‘being’. If one bases such research approaches on non-comprehensive accounts of the idea in question, the validity of the results may be called into question precisely because they may be treating only parts of Steiner’s ‘guardian’ concepts. However, developing comprehensive accounts is challenging. Firstly, due to the extent of Steiner’s work, considering all of his statements is time-consuming. Secondly, comprehensive accounts may not always be coherent. This is especially true in relation to Steiner’s work. Since his work contains such a large number of statements made over a period of more than 40 years, it should not come as a surprise that some may seem conflicting.9 Hence our second research goal is to investigate the conceptual coherence of Steiner’s ‘guardian’ concept. And, as we will see, there are certain potential incoherencies or at least tensions that can be identified. Hence the present article will serve as a groundwork for further investigations into Steiner’s ‘guardian’ concept. Future research could indeed be of relevance to comparative perspectives on the archetype of the ‘demonic adversary’, to meditation research, and to the psychology of spiritual experiences, including how experience is constructed and/or interpreted. Again, before this kind of research can proceed rigorously, a comprehensive account of Steiner’s ‘guardian’ concept needs to be developed.
The notion of a somehow evil, dangerous, or devilish being that is intimately tied to the cosmos and the human being is perhaps one of the best candidates for a cross-cultural archetype. Who knows what the origin of this idea is? Can this idea be traced back to the dangerous animals and predators that have been threatening human existence since time immemorial? Or to the propensity of human beings to create images? Or to the most primal, survival-based instincts inhabiting the subconscious? It might indeed be connected to all three. In any case, an adversarial or demonic figure seems omnipresent. One finds it in many areas of culture, ranging from ancient mythologies, religions, and fairy tales to literature and films. We will consider a handful of such cases. One somewhat early example can be found in the Katha Upanishad, where a boy, Nachiketa, is given away by his father to Yama, the god of death, after Nachiketa has criticized his father for sacrificing old cows that have no value.10 Rather than punishing the boy, Yama ends up teaching him about the nature of reality and the way to liberation. Another well-known example is the temptation of Christ, but also the temptation of the Buddha as he approaches enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. The Buddha is challenged by Mara, who, like Yama, is also the god of death. Resisting Mara’s threats and temptations was a precondition for the ultimate liberation of the Buddha. In different mythologies, one finds a figure that guides recently deceased souls to the realms of death. This figure may act as a ‘guardian’, such as in Norse mythology, where Modgunn watches over the bridge leading from the upper to the lower worlds, to Hel. Monstrous beings play an essential role in fairy tales as well. Yet they are not always simply monstrous. In Peter Christian Asbjørnsen’s Ashlad and the good helpers, the protagonist Askeladden gives his food to a crooked and weak old man. While the protagonist is sleeping, the crooked old man builds a ship that the protagonist needs to reach his aim. Another well-known example is the snake from the Paradise story in the Bible. Less known are the depictions of Mary standing with one foot on the snake (for instance the painting L’Immacolata Concezione by Giambattista Tiepolo (1696–1770), signaling that it has been subdued or conquered).
In the world of literature, one can find many examples. A common source for both Steiner and the Theosophists is Lytton’s Zanoni (1842). One could also point to Kafka’s The Trial, Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), Hichens’ The Dweller on the Threshold (1911), Symond’s The Guardian of the Threshold: A Novel (1980), and Wilde’s A Picture of Dorian Gray (1890). If we widen the horizon and include psychologists, we might add Siegmund Freud, Carl Gustav Jung, and Joseph Campbell11 to this list.
Such ideas and imagery have also impacted popular culture. In Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (1949), we find Gollum, a shadowy desire-driven being, who initially thwarts the hero’s mission but ends up being key to its realization. There is a scene in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) where Luke Skywalker enters a dark cave. Inside the cave, a threatening being appears. Luke cuts off this being’s head, and when the head has fallen to the ground, he recognizes that this face is the same as his own. In the story of Harry Potter (1997–2007), the greatest antagonist, Voldemort, is intimately connected to the hero – a piece of Voldemort’s soul is hidden inside Harry. The singer Van Morrison has a song entitled The Dweller on the Threshold (1982), which was inspired by the Theosophist Alice Bailey’s writings.12
What should be clear so far is that there is a wide variety of beings or characters that relate more or less closely to an overarching, and to some extent paradoxical, demonic adversary. On one end of the scale, such an adversary is purely evil, purely antagonistic. However, to what extent something can be ‘purely’ antagonistic can always be questioned, since it is precisely through adversity that a hero proves their heroism. Perhaps this is the fundamental wisdom behind beings at the other end of the scale: beings whose crookedness is only skin deep, as they provide the most excellent boons to the hero who passes their test. Such a fairy tale structure is embodied in the life of Machig Labdrön (1055–1149), a Buddhist yogini who offered her body as food to some unruly demons. Through this offering, the demons were transformed into helpers, inspiring such practices as ‘feeding the demons’.13 It may be noted that Labdrön herself saw ‘demons’ as images of psychological processes, avoiding the literalism implied by her story, and that she understood ‘demons’ as anything that hinders awakening.14
Steiner’s contribution to the archetype of the demonic adversary that both mirrors and helps the protagonist is complex. This complexity is due to Steiner’s concept of the ‘guardian’, which itself is wide-ranging and complex: Steiner’s ‘guardian’ concept relates to death, spiritual liberation, protection, temptations, threats, crossing the threshold to another world, transforming one’s lower nature, seeing the internal connections between ‘the lower’ and ‘the higher’, realizing that encountering beings of darkness that mirrors oneself is inescapable for spiritual progress. As indicated, our task here is to present this complex whole and consider the tensions inherent in it (such as how something can be both threatening and protective). In so doing, we may also point to what is unique in Steiner’s idea of the ‘guardian’. We start by considering the development of the idea of the ‘guardian’ in Steiner’s work (Section 2). This consideration will help us single out the core of the concept. Then we present an overview of the core idea (Section 3) and discuss some of the tensions inherent in it (Section 4), before drawing a conclusion (Section 5).
Before we begin, a note can be made on the relationship between the ‘guardian’ and the ‘Doppelgänger’ in Steiner’s work. On most occasions, when Steiner refers to the ‘Hüter der Schwelle’ and the ‘Doppelgänger’, the terms refer to the same concept. Hence, the concept of the ‘guardian’ that is developed below will in the main be identical to the concept of the ‘Doppelgänger’. However, Steiner also uses the term ‘Doppelgänger’ in a variety of other ways. For example, the ‘etheric body’ is called a ‘Doppelgänger’,15 and a medical substance given to someone who does not need it is likewise called a ‘Doppelgänger’.16 And in Steiner’s Mysteriendramen, too, the characters and functions of the ‘Hüter der Schwelle’ and of the ‘Doppelgänger’ are quite distinct. The working out of such details within these conceptions and their interconnections cannot be pursued here and must be left to future investigation.
The Development of Steiner’s Concept of the ‘Guardian’
In this section, a general overview of the development of Steiner’s concept of the ‘guardian’ is presented. Three main phases are identified: a spiritual phase, an artistic/dramatic phase, and a cultic-meditative phase. A more detailed account of the different aspects, including extensive references, is given in the next section, which has a more systematic emphasis. As indicated, the concept of a ‘threshold being’ can be found in theosophical literature, where it is often called ‘the dweller on the threshold’. Though both Blavatsky17 and Bailey18 used the term, it is out of the scope of the present article to compare the concept of a dweller in Theosophy to the concept of a ‘guardian’ in Steiner’s anthroposophical work. There are some noteworthy connections, however, which may be investigated in future studies. For example, Steiner’s idea of a ‘false’ or ‘abnormal guardian’19 (the result of taking over a remnant of the astral body of a previous incarnation) is found in Blavatsky as well.20 In any case, what is presented here can be used as a foundation for comparing Steiner’s concept to the Theosophic one and to further scrutinize the degree to which Steiner’s conception can be seen as original or not.
In his publications, Steiner first mentions a ‘guardian of the threshold’ in two articles of the series Wie erlangt man Erkenntnisse höherer Welten?, published in August and September of 1905 (SKA 7: WE, 197–221). He presents an account of the experience that he describes as an encounter with the guardian, in the form of a monologue that is supposed to convey certain experiences that are possible at a rather advanced stage of meditative practice. In that context, he distinguishes between a lesser and a greater guardian, which we will treat more in-depth below. About one year earlier, on October 22, 1904, Steiner holds a lecture in Berlin where he speaks of a being at the threshold, using both the Theosophical term (‘dweller’) and his own (‘guardian’).21 Steiner refers, like Blavatsky, to Zanoni, and he connects the guardian to the being that often appears during a nightmare. A common German term for what can be experienced during a nightmare is ‘Alb’. (The German expression ‘Albtraum’ derives from this word). In the lecture, the nightmare is essentially interpreted as an alternative form of an encounter with the ‘lesser guardian’. Over the following years, Steiner elaborates and comments on the guardian concept in books and lectures. Geheimwissenschaft (1910) contains a further extensive treatment on the ‘guardian’. In that book, Steiner develops the notion that the conscious encounter with the guardian protects against illusory appearances of the spiritual world. Furthermore, the book for the first time associates the guardian with the Christ being (GU, 351). In the two short books Ein Weg zur Selbsterkenntis des Menschen and Schwelle der geistigen Welt, from 1912 and 1913 respectively, Steiner provides further accounts of the guardian. There he considers, for example, experiencing oneself as a ‘cosmic mistake’ (WS, 36). This experience is understood as a very painful one, psychologically speaking, and yet it is an experience that lays the ground for a truthful relationship to the spiritual world. Alongside numerous comments in lectures, these books focus on what can be called a ‘spiritual’ phase of Steiner’s work with regard to the guardian concept (lasting from roughly 1904 to 1913).
The next phase could be called an ‘artistic’ or ‘dramatic’ phase and concerns the incorporation of the guardian into the mystery dramas that Steiner writes and presents on stage from 1910 to 1913. The third play is called Der Hüter der Schwelle and is first shown in Munich in 1912. This play shows different scenes where encounters with the ‘guardian of the threshold’ are enacted and quite clearly represents a continuation or expansion of the spiritual phase into the area of drama. Indeed, the final stage of the spiritual phase overlaps with the dramatic one. The artistic or dramatic phase can be seen to last as long as Steiner is focusing his work on the mystery dramas (ca. 1910–1913).
From 1917 to around 1922, Steiner concerns himself with social threefolding. The guardian, perhaps unexpectedly, plays a role within this area as well. In his descriptions of meditative experiences, Steiner has already in 1905 described a form of disintegration of the soul forces (thinking, feeling, willing) that happens in association with the individual human being going through a spiritual transformation (see next section). This disintegration is now seen by Steiner as something that is also to happen on a societal level.22 The three aspects of the ‘social organism’ described by Steiner (spiritual life, legal life, and economic life) must clearly be separated so that they can interact harmoniously with one another just like the soul forces in a human being.23 In this context, he states that encountering the ‘guardian’ is not only an individual experience and that humanity as such is collectively crossing the threshold to the spiritual world, but unconsciously.24 At one point, Steiner also notes that someone who is deeply connected with a certain people or nationality will experience the ‘guardian’ differently and in a way that is influenced by this connection.25
The final phase could be called a ‘cultic’ phase and begins in 1924. Now, Steiner conducts so-called ‘class lessons’ (‘Klassenstunden’) with students of the recently founded Freie Hochschule für Geisteswissenschaft where he describes, in a kind of religious-poetic language, encounters with the ‘guardian’. These descriptions are part of a meditation material (sometimes referred to as ‘mantras’).26 The class mantras present different experiences a practitioner may go through as they progress in their spiritual development.
What we may glean from this overview is that at its core the ‘guardian’ concept is formulated within a spiritual-meditative context and is then applied by Steiner within the field of art and social theory. Towards the end of his life, the focus shifts back again to the spiritual context, although this time there is also a kind of artistic aspect in that the encounters are formulated in a poetic language. The social or broader cultural concern can also be said to be ever-present in Steiner’s work through overarching ideas and motivations relating to human development (overcoming materialism, reforming pedagogy, inspiring religious renewal, developing holistic medicine, etc.). Hence the phases, which indeed partially overlap, indicate the general focus of Steiner’s work at the time. In the following paragraphs, we will focus on the spiritual aspect of the concept of the ‘guardian’. This is because this aspect is the one that Steiner most often comments on and keeps on returning to throughout the different phases. In other words, it is the spiritual aspect that remains the core of the concept throughout the different phases of its development in his work, while the other aspects are extensions.
Systematic Overview of the Concept of the ‘Guardian’
In this section, we will consider a range of different statements Steiner has made about the ‘guardian of the threshold’. It may seem that there are four or five main ideas that together constitute the ‘guardian’ concept (such as ‘encounter with the undeveloped aspects of one’s own nature’, ‘protection from a premature experience’, ‘self-knowledge’, and ‘distinction between a lesser and a greater guardian’). A main interpretative challenge is to clarify whether these ideas are internally connected or bundled together. Furthermore, the aspects of ‘lower nature’ and ‘protective function’ seem unrelated or even opposed (how can one’s ‘lower nature’ – one’s ‘worst’ aspects – be protective?). This will be discussed later (in Section 4). For now, we start with identifying some fundamental features of the ‘guardian’ concept, namely its relation to the more general notion of a demonic opponent found in culture at large. We also consider its cosmological and anthropological aspects. Then we analyze the processual or narrative structure inherent in Steiner’s ‘guardian’ concept. In other words, the ‘guardian’ is not simply a being with a certain set of qualities that can be listed. Rather, the ‘guardian’ is essentially connected to the unfolding of a series of events or stages. My suggestion is that the ‘guardian’ concept in Steiner can be ordered into three stages: (1) activation, (2) crossing the ‘abyss’, and (3) the actual encounter with the ‘guardian’. All of these will be treated in-depth in the following paragraphs.
The Imagery of the ‘Guardian’ in Myths, Religions, and Folklore
According to Steiner, the ‘guardian of the threshold’ can appear in hundreds of different ways.27 This notion fits well with the manifold picture of the demonic adversary/helper in cultural history painted above. Steiner himself connects the ‘guardian’ to different conceptions of adversarial beings in myths, religions, and folklore. For Steiner, aspects of the ‘guardian’ can be seen in the imagery of the knight’s battle with a monster, such as in the stories of St. Georg and Siegfried, where the dragon represents the ‘guardian’.28 A similar tale is that of Heracles’ encounter with the hydra.29 In Norse myths, Odin’s hanging in the tree is an image of the purifying transformative process that takes place in relation to the ‘guardian’.30 Steiner also suggests that the ‘guardian’ is represented by many well-known beings from the religions: in Egyptian religion, the ferryman or angel of death31; in Sumerian religion, Marduk;32 and in Buddhism, Mara’s attack.33 In Christianity, Steiner connects the ‘guardian’ to the temptation of the Christ,34 the crown of thorns,35 and the journey to hell.36 In folklore, the ‘guardian’ is the Alp, the evil intruder visiting in the night, riding, strangling, or crushing its victims.37 Phenomenologically it can also appear as images of animals,38 monsters,39 and beings who criticize.40
A possible explanation for the great variety of this imagery is that human culture and fantasy pose a strong influence on how the inner experiences in question here appear in pictorial form. Steiner indicates this as well:
It is always a sign of fantastic vision when a person sees animal forms during his ascent into the spiritual world. For these animal figures signify his own fantasies, because he is not sufficiently grounded in himself. What is unconscious at night must absorb a force so that the outer spiritual world becomes objective. Otherwise it becomes subjective, and we carry our own fantasies into the spiritual world. Actually, we usually carry them in all the time, but the Guardian of the Threshold protects us from seeing them. Because that is a purely inner process, this ascent into the spiritual world, and this being surrounded by animal forms that attack us because they want to drive us into falsehoods. 41
What we see is that in Steiner’s view, although the images of the ‘guardian’ may be creations of the imagination, those images have an objective side as well. For example, some of the basic phenomena depicted in them (such as the attack) represent what could be called epistemological events: The images convey how the human being’s lower nature would become destructive (create illusions) if a human being passed beyond the ‘guardian’ without being mature enough. The idea that the images in which the ‘guardian’ appears are imaginative representations of objective processes will provide an interpretative scheme for understanding the ‘guardian’ and may prove key to grasping the whole figure of the ‘guardian’ in Steiner: This figure may be regarded as an imaginative ‘invention’ that brings light to the relationship between unconscious drives and the project of objective spiritual knowledge, which is an overarching motif in his work. Note that ‘invention’ does not necessarily mean ‘subjective’ – an invention in the realm of mechanics, for instance, works with physical laws to connect parts and wholes in a way that manifests a new or more effective mechanical function. In the same way, the appearance of the ‘guardian’ is, according to Steiner, based on objective laws of the human psyche.
The Nature of the ‘Guardian’
As we have seen, the ‘guardian’ may appear in many different ways. But what is its nature, according to Steiner? The most central treatment of the ‘guardian of the threshold’ appears in Wie erlangt man Erkenntnisse höherer Welten? We will summarize what Steiner has to say about the nature of the ‘guardian’ in this book before we proceed to elaborate on the different aspects of the ‘guardian’.
Steiner differentiates between the ‘lesser’ and ‘greater guardian’. The ‘lesser guardian’ appears after the disintegration of thinking, feeling, and willing within the astral and etheric body, which we mentioned earlier. The ‘lesser guardian’ represents in pictorial form the past of the person who encounters him as the ‘lesser guardian’ consists of that person’s bad deeds, thoughts, and feelings (i. e., his karma), and hence the ‘lesser guardian’ appears as a horrible, ghost-like being. The being it represents has previously been, according to Steiner, purified and ennobled by its surroundings (through upbringing, education, and culture). And as awareness of this developing being increases, the task becomes to take over the responsibility for its transformation. In other words, a human being who is spiritually awake (or has been woken up by the ‘guardian’) will now have to enact the same ennobling in relation to themself that previously was enacted externally through culture and the laws of karma. This is, roughly, the idea of the ‘lesser guardian’ in Wie erlangt man Erkenntnisse (cf. SKA 7: WE, 197–202). This could be viewed as the main idea of the ‘guardian’ in Steiner, as it is the one that he comments the most on. We will now flesh out this conception, drawing on Steiner’s further work. The ‘lesser guardian’ is our ‘lower nature’.42 This ‘lower nature’ consists of our passions and inclinations,43 hate and jealousy,44 our dependency on the sensory world,45 and our wish to be perceived as important46 – in short, our egotistical nature47 or our individual48 and collective karma.49 The ‘guardian’ is variously described as an independent being in us,50 as a projection of an astral being in us,51 and as a being that we ourselves are.52 This contradiction – a being that is in us that we also are – may be seen as inherent in the phenomenon of the guardian as such. When the ‘guardian’ appears, one sees oneself, and hence one has to be both separate from and united with what one sees.53 Adding to this complexity, Steiner states in the context of his ideas about spiritual hierarchies that the ‘guardian’ is a spiritual being at the level of an ‘archangel’.54 We will return to these issues in the discussion.
The ‘greater guardian’ appears when the disintegration described earlier continues into the physical body, Steiner states in Wie erlangt man Erkenntnisse höherer Welten (SKA 7: WE, 216 ff.). In contrast to the ‘lesser guardian’, the ‘greater guardian’ is directed towards the future and appears as a beautiful being of light. When one has reached the full potential of one’s earthly development, the ‘greater guardian’ appears and encourages one to dispense with one’s own ‘liberation’ (i. e., the enjoyment of the fruits of one’s labor in a purely spiritual state) and to work to help others instead with their respective spiritual development (ibid.). This focus on helping others will be considered in more depth below in relation to the third protective function of the ‘guardian’. In Geheimwissenschaft im Umriss, the ‘greater guardian’ is connected to Christ as the ‘great model of humanity on earth’ (das große menschliche Erdenvorbild), or, in other words, the notion of the ideal human being.55
The Functions of the ‘Guardian’
As will be argued in this article, the protective function of the ‘guardian’ has three aspects: (1) It protects the human being against a premature meeting with its lower nature, which could result in psychopathology; (2) it protects against illusions in relation to the spiritual world; and (3) it protects against an egotistical renunciation of participation in the development of humanity.
According to Steiner, meetings with the ‘guardian’ happen in the sleep state.56 When one wakes up in the morning, the ‘lesser guardian’ dampens one’s consciousness so that one remains unconscious of one’s lower nature, which one was confronted with during sleep;57 when one is going to sleep in the evening, the ‘greater guardian’ does the same.58 If this were not the case, one would, for instance, experience in waking consciousness something that usually occurs only during deep sleep or in the postmortal state, namely to feel in oneself the pain that one has inflicted on others during the day.59 The ‘guardian’ protects against such a premature encounter with one’s own karma60 that would be unendurable61 and extremely fearful.62 A premature encounter, such as when one lacks the necessary spiritual means or strength of character,63 can result in mental illness.64 That mental illness is connected to the disintegration and imbalances that may arise,65 which Steiner compares to what happens during ‘hysterical’ or ‘nervous’ breakdowns.66 The imbalances can lead to a violent nature, excessive devotion, or passivity;67 one may lose control over one’s desire,68 become grandiose,69 or simply become lost in the spiritual world on the basis of one’s imperfections.70 One may also become depressive71 and lose motivation for further spiritual work.72 The fear that arises when encountering the ‘guardian’ may be repressed through materialism.73 Through materialism one focuses one’s attention on the physical world, which dampens the consciousness one has of the fear. Though not a pathology, such a reaction represents an avoidance of one’s ‘lower’ nature.
The ‘guardian’ also protects against the arising of illusions when someone begins to have spiritual perceptions. Through becoming conscious of one’s lower nature, one develops insight into how this nature distorts spiritual perception. Hence the meeting with the ‘guardian’ gives the opportunity to separate truth from falsehood on this level of cognition.74 For example, one starts to feel that one could see oneself as a kind of error in the universe – but hidden within this feeling there lies a connection to truth, as this sense of being an error is itself a recognition of a truth, that is, the truth that the individual has separated themself from its environment and sees, due to the very nature of consciousness, everything from an egotistical perspective.75 Hence work on the soul‚ work that may be compared to psychotherapy, becomes the foundation of objective spiritual knowledge. Without such work, or without consciously encountering the ‘guardian’ and going through the transformation it demands, one’s perceptions of the spiritual world will be illusory.76
The final protective function is about the possibility of exiting earthly development as a result of spiritual practice. The ‘greater guardian’ shows the practitioner what they can become if they renounce this possibility and decide to contribute to the liberation of their fellow beings. The ‘greater guardian’ in Steiner’s presentation states:
Until now, you have only redeemed yourself: now that you are liberated, you can liberate all your companions in the sense world. As an individual you have striven up to this day; now integrate yourself into the whole, so that you not only bring yourself into the supersensible world, but everything else that is present in the sensual world. (SKA 7: WE, 217 f.)
It may be pointed out that this perspective resembles the sentiment of Mahāyāna Buddhism, which criticizes the egotism inherent in the notion of liberating oneself. Indeed, the idea of the lesser and ‘greater guardian’ may have entered Steiner’s work through the work of Blavatsky, who herself may have been influenced by Mahāyāna ideas.77 However, the second sentence of the above quote points in the direction more specific to Anthroposophy, namely the notion of becoming part of a greater whole (neither dissolving the self nor becoming one with puruṣa, the fundamental consciousness of the universe), and seeing physical existence as having essential developmental significance.
Steiner elaborates on the ‘greater guardian’’s protective function as follows:
After all, as a single liberator you would like to enter the realm of the supernatural today. But then you would have to look down on the still unredeemed beings of the sense world. And you would have separated your fate from theirs. But you are all connected. You all had to descend into the world of the senses in order to harvest the forces required for a higher world. If you were to separate yourself from them, you would misuse the powers that you could only develop in community with them. If they had not descended, neither could you; without them you lacked the strength for your supernatural existence. You must share with them the powers you have gained with them. I therefore prevent you from entering the highest areas of the supernatural world as long as you have not used all the powers you have acquired to redeem your fellow world. You may stay in the lower regions of the supernatural world with what you have already attained; but I stand before the gate to the higher ones ‘as the cherub with the fiery sword at the gate of paradise’ and prevent you from entering as long as you still have powers that have remained unused in the physical world. And if you will not use yours, others will come to use them; and then a high, supersensible world will receive all the fruits of the sensuous realm; but you will be deprived of the ground on which you grew. The purified world will develop beyond you and leave you behind. (SKA 7: WE, 218)
The ‘greater guardian’ hence resists, defends, or protects against the entrance into the spiritual world in a twofold sense: Firstly, the entrance is resisted on behalf of the other beings who have co-developed the forces the practitioner would use for liberating themselves. Secondly, the entrance is resisted on behalf of the practitioner, as they would remain excluded from further spiritual development if they chose the ‘black path’, as Steiner refers to it,78 of self-liberation. In other words, the ‘greater guardian’ protects humanity as a whole as well as the practitioner.
Stages of the ‘Guardian’ Experience
The process of experiencing the ‘guardian of the threshold’ can be divided into three stages: (1) activation, (2) crossing the ‘abyss’, and (3) actual encounter.
In general, all situations where a human being becomes aware of their lower, instinctual nature79 and perceives themself from the outside80 in ways that awaken fear or shame81 could be regarded as ‘activating’ the ‘guardian’. Feelings of shame dampen or cover the distress associated with the activation.82 In the context of Steiner’s work, the activation comes mostly because of reaching a certain level of psychospiritual development83 and/or because of spiritual practices such as meditation. Steiner notes that the ‘guardian’ may appear, become activated, at a relatively early stage of practice.84 There are, however, certain conditions independent of spiritual development and meditation that can also lead to activating the ‘guardian’ in the sense of having visions of a ‘Doppelgänger’. These conditions include problems of digestion,85 situations that evoke strong fear,86 and situations where the guardian angel seeks to warn the human being they are watching over.87
In a lecture held in Berlin in 1906, not long after having first formulated the guardian-concept in writing, Steiner describes the meditative process that leads to meeting this entity. First one enters a deeply concentrated state (dyhana), which is so deep that the outside world ‘dies away,’88 with specific feelings as an object.89 Then one lets go of the object and enters the deeply concentrated state again, but this time without an object:
[…] and then we notice that the feeling is not just a feeling, but that it is beginning to lighten up, that the feeling is beginning to become a phenomenon of light. And thus appears what one perceives as thought-form, but what might better be called the form of a feeling. […] When man learns to feel the objects around him and the objects take on colors, which then crystallize into images: at that point he beholds his own world of emotions around him. He needs to look at himself from as objective observers, then he crosses the threshold at the other side of which he perceives himself with all that he is – and with all he still is not. The first Guardian of the Threshold stands before him, showing him: That is you!90
The dwelling in feelings is replaced by dwelling in pure consciousness, which leads to meeting the dweller on the threshold, an objectified and personified expression of one’s inner, instinctual world. This is a deep state of being outside the body for Steiner,91 so deep that the physical body is paralyzed.92 But before a full-fledged encounter takes place, one needs to cross the abyss.
As the meditative process deepens, according to Steiner, one will stand at a threshold,93 where one must leave the sensory world behind completely.94 When one does that, the so-called ‘abyss’ appears. Entering into the abyss would mean leaving behind the ground and support that the sensory world and one’s habitual self-conceptions provide.95 At this point, both egotism and fear will increase.96 To proceed, fearlessness and transformation of egotism are required.97 One will feel a frost-like loneliness, and this loneliness needs to be endured while egotism is expanded into an interest for what lies beyond the ego.98 Egotism needs to be transformed into a form of other-centeredness that is as strong as one’s self-centeredness has been up until now. In other words, egotism needs to be transformed into compassion.99 This idea, I believe, is unique to Steiner: Egotism is not to be left behind but is rather to be transformed. As he also states, a certain kind of egotism is justified in the spiritual world.100 There, in the sphere of spiritual experience, egotism can bring something that otherwise would be lacking, namely a centeredness within oceanic expansion. But, again, it needs to be a transformed egotism. Such a form of ‘egotism’ could be interpreted as being-with-oneself in otherness,101 the unification of autonomy/agency and surrender.102 The ‘guardian’ reveals one’s untransformed egotism. This revelation gives rise to the feeling of ‘being an error’ within the larger scheme of things. Yet this feeling is the beginning of the kind of self-knowledge and transformation required to proceed beyond the abyss. Successfully crossing the abyss leads to encountering the ‘guardian’.
The ‘guardian’ may appear as a horrible, shocking, accusing, or attacking creature based on the aspect of one’s lower nature it takes its shape from.103 The exact way of appearance is based on one’s imagination. Furthermore, the encounter can be painful and depressive.104 Again, the being not only presents one’s lower nature to oneself but also presents warnings, such as that one should not pass by the ‘guardian’ before one is ready to ‘bring light to darkness’.105 This expression could serve as a summary of the kinds of spiritual practices that the ‘guardian encounter’ demands. These kinds of practices will be described below. What liberates the guardian creatures, a liberation that presumably coincides with successful spiritual practice, is knowledge.106 With the transformation of the ‘guardian creature’ or, in other words, with man’s efforts to transform his own nature, self-insight grows, and certain general insights are acquired. The self-insight consists of knowledge about what one lacks, which defects one possesses, and what needs to be changed or overcome in oneself so that a higher self that is capable of experiencing the spiritual world consciously may emerge.107 For example, one may realize to what extent one is bound to physical reality108 and how weak one is with regards to one’s will to transform oneself.109 The more general insights that arise include understanding how development towards the good happens through confusion and lack of perfection,110 insight into how lower nature forms the necessary ground or condition for higher knowledge and existence,111 and insight into how death and illness originate in the spiritual world.112
Spiritual Practice, Transformation, and Telos
Encountering the guardian involves a clear view of the difficult, dark, and unwanted aspects of one’s character. The main task when encountering this being is to take conscious responsibility for one’s own transformation,113 which includes personal development, that is, the development of certain traits, virtues, and strength of character. More concretely, this would mean overcoming the resistance one has towards developing oneself,114 increasing inner strength115 and calm,116 and improving one’s moral attitude and conduct.117 The virtues one needs to develop include courage and fearlessness,118 abstinence,119 and endurance.120 The traits include the love of freedom, thoughtfulness, optimism, and love.121 On the whole, there needs to be a balance between the will to develop and self-insight.122 What is the telos of this process? One goes through the process “damit der Mensch vollständig Mensch werde”,123 which includes purifying one’s lower nature and unifying with the transformed ‘Doppelgänger’ or ‘guardian’.124
Up until now, we have considered the imagery connected with the ‘guardian’, what the ‘guardian’’s basic nature and function are, as well as the stages of the encounter with this entity. The process of this encounter is dependent on spiritual practice broadly conceived and aims at a full transformation of one’s lower nature and a unification with the same. Consciously encountering the ‘guardian’ gives a truthful access to the spiritual world while bypassing it leads to illusions. At any stage of the process, consciousness may be dampened or one may develop psychological imbalances, mental illness, repressive materialism, etc. This process is summarized in table 1.
There are two main issues uncovered in the presentation above that require further discussion: (1) how the ‘lower nature’ of man can be a ‘guardian’ in the sense described earlier and (2) how he may be said to be independent of the person that experiences the encounter. Furthermore, implicit in the above presentation there is a third issue, namely: (3) how and in what sense humanity itself may be seen as a kind of ‘guardian of the spiritual world’. The first two issues relate to tensions arising out of Steiner’s description of the ‘guardian’. As we have seen, the ‘guardian’ has a protective function but also represents a human being’s lower nature, their immature and selfish desires, feelings, etc., that can be transformed through spiritual practice. If these experiences have a protective role, why should they be transformed? And if we understand ‘protection’ as a ‘higher function’, then how can the ‘lower’ nature of man embody something ‘higher’ in him? Furthermore, Steiner seems to contradict himself when the ‘guardian’ is seen both as part of us and as an independent being. This third issue goes beyond what Steiner explicitly states, but it elaborates on a fundamental idea relating to the ‘guardian’, namely that ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ are reversed or take on a new meaning within a larger whole. These three topics, which indeed all concern the relationship between ‘higher’ and ‘lower’, will be discussed below. Further issues emerging from this complex, such as the idea of a ‘justified egotism’125 as well as the nature of visual spiritual experiences (imaginations),126 have been discussed elsewhere.
How does the lower nature of the human being act as a ‘guardian’? We could say that basic instincts such as fear and desire have a clear protective value: They ensure the survival of the organism. But is this what Steiner means? The function of the ‘guardian’ seems different: The ‘guardian’ protects us from fully seeing our lower nature, since seeing ourselves fully would be too psychologically challenging. Then again, the ‘guardian’ is supposed to be a manifestation of the very ‘lower nature’ it is said to protect us from. How is this possible? In order to understand this idea, it might be helpful to look to the Kantian concept of the ‘sublime’ and the example of the thunderstorm.127 Terrible as a thunderstorm may be, it also inspires awe and reverence. Indeed, such experiences may be complex. Although there may be strong negative emotions present, such as fear and terror, this does not necessarily make the whole of the experience negative. Of course, the reverence for the thunderstorm is predicated upon not being drawn into it but rather observing it, its power, and perhaps even the destruction it causes, from a distance.128 Similarly, we may conceive of the basic and tremendously powerful human drives as awe-inspiring and in that regard as something ‘higher’. Indeed, man is completely reliant on such drives. Still, being directly confronted with the tremendous power of these instincts can destabilize a person.
However, such an example only helps us see that something being ‘lower’ in some regard does not necessarily exclude the possibility that it is something ‘higher’ at the same time. But there is more to Steiner’s concept of the ‘guardian’. What is tremendous and powerful and so on is also protective, that is, the opposite of destructive. How can this be? Does Steiner mean this in the sense in which a father might yell at his child to protect the child from danger. The loud yell takes the form of something dangerous (loud, unexpected, threatening) to create a reaction that avoids the real danger. In fact, we may expand this idea to all kinds of threats in nature as well: Animals display a part or function of themselves that makes them dangerous (fangs, claws, speed, etc.) in an attempt to make an opponent fearful and flee. Although threats may be unpleasant, they end up being protective so long as the fight is avoided. In a similar way, Steiner asserts, our normal conceptions of what is good and bad, higher and lower, can be challenged when it comes to spiritual experiences:
Why do we speak of a threshold? Why do we speak of a ‘Guardian of the Threshold’? We speak of it because something that really fights and rumbles and wages war in our everyday life was withdrawn from the human soul, as if by grace of the wisdom-filled guidance of the world. It is as if we only saw the surface, and below it rumbles and fights and wars. Even our everyday experiences in life are actually an ongoing victory. But it must be fought for again and again. And in the future, this victory will only be fought for when people will know that they are unconsciously directed by a kind, wisdom-filled world guidance. At the very bottom of the soul we really find what is not known in ordinary sensory life, but which can spiritually be experienced. In those human depths, man is connected with those forces of the world, which transcend good and evil with the greatness of their spirit.129
In spiritual or meditative experience, we are challenged, according to Steiner, to expand cognition to be more inclusive of opposites,130 like when we experience reverence for a thunderstorm. If we cannot effectuate such an expansion, we are ‘pushed back’ by the ‘guardian’, like a thunderstorm pushing us back when we get too close. This experience of being pushed back belongs to what Steiner conceives of as ‘wisdom’: It is our own instincts that push us back from perceiving them fully.131 But there are no tricks here, for Steiner, when it comes to ‘passing the test’ of the ‘guardian’ – as is sometimes suggested in artistic treatments of this subject. (In Monteverdi’s Orfeo, for instance, the protagonist puts Charon, the ‘guardian’ of the underworld, to sleep by singing an aria to him.) The test is fundamentally about being confronted with the whole of one’s nature, especially our instinctual, egotistical nature:
But then, when the ordeal of our soul has led us further in this way, we are purified in our soul, and immersed by the purification process we had to go through. Since we have to penetrate downwards through everything the Guardian of the Threshold shows us as the cause of egoism, we are also immune to everything that causes us to disperse in the vastness of space, and also immune to feeling a fear of the void.132
The process of purification and self-transformation happens exactly through the confrontation with the fear, the emptiness of the abyss, and all the other experiences one meets as the expansion of consciousness takes place. Hence, the process may be regarded as wholly immanent. One part of this process is the ability to expand cognition to include opposites. Such a form of cognition may be seen as realized in the speech of the ‘guardian’, where the connection between the higher and lower is revealed.
To summarize, the lower may have a protective function when it stops us from ‘getting too close to the storm’, and in this regard the ‘guardian’ may be described as threatening. However, getting too close to what is threatening and dangerous may also lead to mental imbalances, so the ‘guardian’ may also be regarded as potentially dangerous. The wisdom involved is in this manner tremendous, powerful, and potentially deeply transformative and for that reason rightfully frightening as well.
We now turn to the issue of in what sense and to what extent the ‘guardian’ may be said to be an independent being. As indicated above, Steiner states that the ‘guardian’ is:
- 1) An independent being in us
- 2) A projection of an astral being in us
- 3) A being that we are ourselves
- 4) A spiritual being at the rank of an archangel
The first and third statements seem like clear contradictions. However, considering the second, these two statements can be harmonized. A projection is something that is both what is projected and, at the same time, independent of it. A mirror image is a projection of ourselves but is also independent to some degree – the image is influenced by, for instance, irregularities in the surface of the mirror in ways that we are not. Maybe it would be more precise to say ‘relatively independent’, but it is indeed hard to draw exact lines that separate what we are, something that is ‘merely’ in us, or part of us, and something that is independent of us. For example, we all have a physical heart in us. Without the heart, we could not exist, so in a sense, we are our heart, it is part of our essence. But heart transplants are possible, so our heart can exist independently of us, at least for a while and in a certain sense. Similarly, the ‘guardian’ may be seen as a being in us, a being that we are, and a being independent of us.
The fourth statement seems more perplexing. Taking it together with the third, we may derive the statement that we are an archangel. If we recall that the ‘guardian’ is also our lower nature, we can draw the conclusion that some archangels consist of hate, desire, doubt, etc. This conclusion is confusing since archangels are higher beings, according to Steiner, which represent a level of development way above humanity. However, a solution for issues like these has been already suggested: Less admirable qualities may have a protective function in certain situations. We could therefore describe an archangel as a being that protects humanity from itself by using qualities such as fear, doubt, hate, etc. Furthermore, it is quite common in cultural history that higher beings such as angels and gods are associated with disturbing qualities such as fear (e. g., angels in the Bible), violence and aggression (e. g., Kali and Ares/Mars), and jealousy and vengefulness (Jahve). Hence gods may seem more like thunderstorms than like saints. The idea that the ‘lower’ may be connected to the ‘higher’ has also been expressed by the Neoplatonist Proclus, who regards ‘lower’ existences, such as a rock, to be, in one sense, closer to the absolute, the one, than the soul.133 The rock is a stable unity and hence represents the one more perfectly than the soul, which must bring itself into unity in order to be close to the one.
This leaves us with the issue of whether the human being is an archangel. In this context, it needs to be noted that Steiner considers the higher self of the human being as already forming a unity with higher beings134 and that the self of the human being is only relatively independent of the spiritual world.135 Here is a suggestion for how to understand this idea: When considered in isolation, our ‘lower nature’, our instincts, etc., are simply that: a part of us that remains mostly subconscious. These instincts may be considered within the larger frame of things; they may be seen as the basis for life, as thunderstorms that may emerge out of us. Yet the instincts may indeed protect us, and they may be linked to our potential for personal growth. When our instinctual nature is viewed in this way, one may see its ‘higher function’ – its ‘archangel-aspect’. Hence, in the final analysis, the higher and lower nature of the human being may be seen as connected.
We will now proceed to discuss the final issue, the issue of the human being as a kind of ‘guardian’ of the spiritual world. In the chapter on the ‘higher guardian’ in Wie erlangt man Erkenntnisse höherer Welten, the following is stated:
[the] supersensible world needed such a transition through the sensuous. Its further development would not have been possible without this transition. Only when beings with the appropriate abilities have developed within the realm of the senses can the supernatural realm continue. And these beings are the people.136
It is not immediately clear in this context exactly what is meant by the spiritual world not being able to develop further without humanity. This concept seems to relate to the experience of death, as Steiner goes on to explain:
For death is nothing other than the expression of the fact that the former supersensible world had reached a point from which it could not go any further by itself. A general death would have been necessary for this world if it had not received a new twist of life. And so this new life has become a struggle against general death. From the remains of a dying, ossifying world, the germs of a new one bloomed. That is why we have dying and living in the world. And slowly things flow into each other. The dying parts of the old world still cling to the new germs of life that have emerged from them. The clearest expression of this is to be found in man.137
Steiner seems to express the idea that the struggle humanity has with death (and illness) – the conflict it experiences as a finite, embodied being and an infinite, spiritual being – is necessary for the spiritual world to continue its existence or develop further. In a way, the spiritual world according to Steiner ‘projects’ a transient being that takes on the experience of death and thus brings new life to the spiritual world. Only through this transformation is it possible for the spiritual world to continue. This view of the spiritual world may remind us of how the ‘lower guardian’ takes the shape of the instincts, remaining hidden within the human being and requiring transformation as part of spiritual progress. Accordingly, humanity may be seen as a being that takes on the ‘lower aspects’ of the spiritual world, the transformation of which is required for the spiritual world to progress. In this way humanity is a ‘guardian’ of the spiritual world – it protects the spiritual world from universal death by taking on its ‘lower’ aspects for a time and by transforming them into something ‘higher’.
We have tried to give an overview of the essential parts of the concept of the ‘guardian’ Steiner’s work. We have focused especially on the spiritual or esoteric aspect of the concept. Further work would be necessary to complete this picture, investigating the concept of the ‘guardian’ in the mystery dramas and Steiner’s social thought. It was shown that the notion of a ‘demonic adversary’ in cultural history is closely related to conception of the ‘guardian’ and is found in a great variety of places within culture, be it religion, art, or literature. Steiner clearly connects his concept of the ‘guardian’ with the various traditions of the adversary but also develops his own conception of it. His notion of crossing the abyss through an expansion of justified egotism seems innovative and unique. We have also discussed three complex ideas related to Steiner’s guardian-concept, trying to make sense of the ‘guardian’ as being both a lower and a higher being, how the ‘guardian’ may be both part of the human being and independent of the human being, and the notion that humanity may itself be a ‘guardian’. This study lays the groundwork for further, more in-depth studies of the ‘guardian’ in Steiner’s work.