Resistance as the origin of pedagogical initiative

Lecture by Claus-Peter Röh, 10th World Teachers' Conference, in: Journal Midsummer No. 57

Experiencing and overcoming resistance has always been an existential aspect in the development of the international Waldorf movement. Each new school initiative knows the phenomenon and knows that the resistance they meet actually helps them pool their forces, think out new ideas and bring about transformation. We can look back to many a crisis situation and realize that the obstacles we experienced then were instrumental in helping us to muster the strength to take new steps. “Necessity is the mother of invention”, as the saying goes. Rudolf Steiner saw resistance to the old, habitual ways of thinking as necessary and as a sign of the new school’s orientation towards the future. “It must oppose [traditional thinking], for otherwise it would not work in the direction of future development.” [1]

Today, three generations later, the Waldorf movement also faces obstacles and questions that require us to take a stance. In recent years, for instance, the media have intensely promoted the “digital revolution in the classroom.” Scientists develop complex “observation systems” that collect countless data on the basis of which they promise ever more plannable and predictable lessons as well as “highly individual” ways of learning. Individual students only need to press a button for the images on the electronic blackboard to change. “The possibility to zoom in on the Alps will drive the last vestiges of nostalgia from the classrooms.” – As Waldorf teachers we need to penetrate the fascination with these floods of outer images and develop, out of clear insights, valuable living inner pictures that are conveyed from person to person as we teach students of various ages.

One aspect of the relationship we have with the power of the technical, earthly measurability and predictability – seen in anthroposophy as ahrimanic qualities – is expressed in the green North window, at the back of the Goetheanum’s main auditorium: as human beings we face this power eye-to-eye, distancing ourselves from it on the one hand, while approaching it carefully and searchingly on the other. Rudolf Steiner wrote of this window, “And the spirit of gravity attracted contradiction which, in the will of human beings, became resistance.” [2]

Resistance is necessary for personal development

How we, as modern human beings, gain insights and impulses for our actions, especially when we come up against resistance, is an essential theme in Goethe’s Faust. In the very prologue of Part 1, the Father God explains how human beings need Mephisto and his dealings in order to develop new strengths: 

(340) The Lord: Man’s energies all too soon seek the level, 340

He quickly desires unbroken slumber,

So I gave him you to join the number,

To move, and work, and pass for the devil.

Mephisto has two kinds of influence on us: he tries to induce us to leave our intended path and he enables us to gain knowledge of the world and knowledge of ourselves. When asked about his identity, he replies that he is (1335) “Part of the Power that would always wish Evil, and always works the Good”.

Faust, tired of the old book knowledge, has made a pact with Mephisto. Mephisto then takes him on a drinking binge at Auerbach’s Cellar and on to the Witches’ Kitchen, where Faust sees the image of the beautiful Helen in a mirror. Mephisto then arranges a meeting between Faust and Gretchen. His experience of the world and his encounters with other human beings awaken a new awareness in Faust. He also realizes, however, that he is becoming increasingly dependent on his companion, Mephisto, and the effect the latter has on him. In the scene “Forest and Cavern” he says:

(3240)  You gave me,

With this joy, that brings me nearer,

Nearer to the gods, a companion,

Whom I can no longer do without,

Though he is impudent, and chilling,

Degrades me in my own eyes, and with                                                                                                              

A word, a breath, makes your gifts nothing. 

The more clearly Faust sees the gulf opening within himself between the elevating divine forces and Mephisto’s degrading influence, the stronger grows his will to overcome this abyss through his own human actions. This first recognition and insight are gradually transformed into clear judgment. When Mephisto drops an almost sneering remark about the infatuated Gretchen (“To that poor little ape of flesh and blood,… and always in love”, Faust replies,  You snake! … away from me! Procurer!” (3313f.)

Later, Faust realizes that the wild excesses of the Walpurgis Night had been a cunning plan of Mephisto’s to distract him from Gretchen’s cruel fate. His awakening resistance grows stronger in the face of this obvious deceit, which shakes him profoundly.  The scene “Gloomy Day” sees him confronting Mephisto: “In misery! Despair! … Locked up in prison as a criminal,… Treacherous, worthless spirit, you hid it from me!” With his careless reply, “She is not the first”, Mephisto reveals his true colours and Faust, enraged with disappointment, realizes that it is up to him to take initiative, “It pierces to the marrow of my bones, the misery of this one being – and you smile calmly at the fate of thousands! … Save her, or woe to you!”

Part 1 ends with Faust painfully realizing, on seeing Gretchen in prison, that his awakening and initiative have come too late for Gretchen. Through the ups and downs in his dealings with Mephisto, his own power of judgment and strength of initiative have grown, however, allowing him to meet Mephisto in Part 2 as a human being who has become freer and more independent. Rudolf Steiner described this kind of inner growth in the face of the opposing forces as characteristic of the modern human being. “This swaying between Ahriman and Lucifer is necessary because, without it, our personality would not develop.  Without the spirit that creates and acts through resistance, our personality could not unfold. In order to progress, it needs to feel resistance that reaches right down into the physical.[3]   

The members of our organization also offer resistance

Looking at the effect resistance has in our pedagogical work, we find an archetypal image in the daily waking up process. Every morning, our ‘I’ and astral body, which are intimately connected, must penetrate, and overcome the resistance of, the – equally closely linked – physical and etheric bodies. Because this penetration is not harmonious yet in children, Rudolf Steiner said, in the first lecture of The Foundations of Human Experience (formerly The Study of Man), that it was the foremost task of education to bring about the gradual harmonization between the spirit-soul on the one hand and the physical and life body on the other. We can depict the waking up process as the gradual interpenetration of the various levels of our being (see sketch below). In his book Cosmosophy[4] Rudolf Steiner described where we find the three soul forces of thinking, feeling and willing in relation to the four levels of our organization:

-  Thinking can arise between the physical and etheric body to the same extent to which the etheric forces detach themselves from the physical forces of growth after the change of teeth.

-   The will is essentially very close to the impulses of the ‘I’, but it is also has an affinity with the mobile astral body.

-   The feeling arises in the middle of these encounters, between the movement of the astral body and the formative forces of the ether body.

When we look at child development we see that the pupils experience the resistance of their various levels of being in very individual ways. Imagine a boy who encounters strong resistance on entering into his physical body in the morning: he finds it hard to wake up, but as a result of this ‘clash’ with his physical body his thinking forces wake up very early. – Or imagine a girl who has a strong astral body: she is soon awake and, spurred by her astral body, she brings a cheerful, wide-eyed, often hard to bridle, sensory joy and anticipation to each day. Because of her strong life of feeling, she easily connects with everything that has to do with movement, rhythm or music, but her astral love of movement offers resistance when she is required to concentrate on a quiet reflective activity.

As teachers we also experience various kinds of resistance within ourselves which we have to overcome in our own individual ways. This overcoming of resistance has an effect on our individual sense of freedom, on our inner mood and strength of initiative. If I decide, for instance, to change a long-cherished teaching habit with my next class, I will face the resistance of this old habit in my ether body until my new approach has established itself.

The other side of the ‘I’ in the face of outer resistance

These kinds of inner resistance are only one side of the teacher’s experience. As we meet the world and outer resistance with our senses (see arrows in the sketch below), with our interest and actions, we come across a riddle: even if we fail to see this at first, we realize increasingly how the experiences, challenges, even difficulties, we encounter at school are deeply connected with our own selves. It almost seems as if we were meeting ourselves in our external destinies. Martin Buber referred to this finding oneself anew in our encounters with others and with the world when he said “I become an ‘I’ through you”.

As Waldorf teachers in particular, we are required to practise our love of initiative by leaving old habits behind and devoting ourselves fully to the work and encounters that every new day brings. If we do this, as suggested in the Philosophy of Freedom, from individual intuition and conviction, we take steps towards finding ourselves in the social realm. Rudolf Steiner described this as a future stage of human evolution when he said, “We are heading toward a future age in which a person will say to himself: My self is out there in all those whom I meet; it is least of all within me.” [5]

This means that we need to add to our inner ‘I’, to the spiritual essence of our fourfold nature, a second level of effectiveness, one that comes to meet us outwardly, in the challenges and resistance we meet in life.

“Be a person of initiative”

Learning that, as teachers, we have a direct relationship with the outer events and encounters that come towards us awakens in us a profound sense of responsibility: how can I become more attentive to everything that is going on in my lessons? Often the seemingly minor details are the most important. If we succeed in cultivating an attitude of interest, of “devotion to the small things”[6] , then the characteristic qualities of each pupil become more noticeable: the girl who only begins her work when paper and pencils are neatly lined up in front of her; or the boy who has his very own way of recalling a story. Another level of attention is the attention to the interaction between the teacher and the pupils during the lesson: how does a class respond to being addressed in a certain way? Is there an immediate response? Do the pupils ask questions? Is there resistance rising up from the pupils’ life of soul?

As teachers we are taken aback when a discrepancy arises between our intentions and what actually happens in the lessons. Required to bring about a new balance, we need to develop pedagogical initiative, either immediately or in our preparations for the next day. Something mysterious often happens in such situations: as we are taking the initiative our dismay about the discrepancy between the actual lesson and the ideal we had in mind is often transformed into new strength and confidence. In applying our will and taking action we clearly connect with the part of our ‘I’ that is coming towards us from the future. In volume 3 of Karmic Relationships Rudolf Steiner described the biographical significance of developing initiative in the face of resistance: “Become a person of initiative. You must find the centre of your being by taking initiative when your body or other circumstances present you with hindrances; for all joy or sorrow in life depends on your finding or not-finding of this personal initiative.”[7]

We can apply this thought to our lessons and also to the essence of Waldorf Education: In the countless cases of resistance we face, in the wider or narrower context, we find that we are again and again required to take initiative. The more we manage to take hold of the described Faustian stages of gaining awareness, knowledge and judgement, and to take initiative out of our own free will, the closer we will come, in our deepest being, to the living essence of Waldorf education.

With the theme of this World Teachers' Conference, “Overcoming Resistance – Courage for an Independent Spiritual Life” we would like to work on further developing our individual strength of initiative.


[1] Rudolf Steiner, The Spirit of the Waldorf School, Anthroposophic Press 1995, tr. R. Lathe, N. Whittaker, p. 30

[2] Albert Schmelzer, Goetheanum Glass Windows, Verlag am Goetheanum 2013, tr. M. Saar

[3] R. Steiner, Faust, der strebende Mensch, GA 272, p. 310 (Available in English as Anthroposophy in the Light of Goethe’s Faust, SteinerBooks 2013, tr. B. Channer).

[4] R. Steiner, Anthroposophie als Kosmosophie, GA 207, p. 47f. (Available in English as Cosmosophy Vol. 1, Cosmic Influences on the Human Being, SteinerBooks 1985, tr. A. Wulsin)

[5] R. Steiner, How can Mankind Find the Christ Again?, Anthroposophic Press 1984, p. 70, tr. F. Dawson, G. Hahn.

[6] R. Steiner, Education for Special Needs, GA 317, Rudolf Steiner Press 2014, tr. A. Meuss

[7] R. Steiner, Esoterische Betrachtungen karmischer Zusammenhänge Band III., lecture 10, p. 151 (Available in English as Karmic Relationships. Esoteric Studies. Volume 3. Rudolf Steiner Press, 2002, tr. G. Adams, D. Osmond)

translated by Margot Saar