When the heavens revolt. A small story of violence research

Michael Birnthaler

A foray into the history of research into violence shows us that this psychological phenomenon is interpreted on an ever more spiritual basis: from psychoanalysis (human beings as a work of nature), the behaviourists (human beings as a work of society) through humanistic psychology (human beings as work of their I) to transpersonal psychology (human beings as work of their self). Not until the advent of anthroposophical psychology is violence fully explained as a spiritual phenomenon (human beings as work of their spirit).

The father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, interpreted violence within his biomedical pressure cooker model as the consequence of a “release of pressure”. An explosion lets the pent up aggression erupt. Here the teacher is confronted with the task of keeping this destructive drive in check. Freud’s pupil, the ethnologist Konrad Lorenz, classified aggression as life-sustaining, evolutionary instinctive energy. Suppressing this innate aggressive drive led to an increased desire to act aggressively. His recommendation was therefore to compensate for these innate aggressive drives above all through doing sport.

Behaviourists such as John Dollard believed alternatively that it was above all the environment with its potential to cause frustration which led to aggression. Now it was the job of the teacher to minimise such experiences of frustration and to ensure positive conditioning through reward and punishment (“programmed learning”). The educational psychologist Albert Bandura subsequently claimed that the readiness for violence was learned through aggressive rike models. Here the teacher had to make sure that children were kept away from the corresponding role models through social cognitive learning.

Representatives of humanistic psychology such as Erich Fromm see the human being as a being which, on the one hand, is tied to nature but, on the other, has the potential for freedom. In his concept, the human being is guided by six existential needs: for example the striving to achieve something, but also productive excitement and inner vitality. But if this is prevented by a culture of “amusing ourselves to death” and “bore-out”, boredome arises Fromm says. “Because boredome is nothing other than the experience of the paralysis of our productive forces and the feeling of not being alive.” In order to fill this void, two possibilities offer themselves to the bored person: permanent distraction and violence.

The representatives of the fourth school of psychology, so-called transpersonal psychology or “height psychology”, go one step further. A pioneer is Viktor Frankl, the founder of logotherapy, the “theory of meaning against meaninglessness”. Frankl, who survived the Auschwitz concentration camp, spoke of the “power of defiance of the spirit”.

This power which slumbers in each human being can help us to transcend ourselves in a threefold way: by growing beyond our biological (disposition), sociological (environment) and psychological (behaviour) destiny. But the “unconditional will to meaning” could also be massively frustrated through social conditions. This in turn would give rise to a feeling of a lack of meaning, then a void of meaning and finally an “existential vacuum” – the humus on which the propensity to violence could thrive.

A more recent approach in violence research is represented by the family and youth psychologist Ferdinand Sutterlüty. In his model of the “violent career”, arousing experiences of violence can lead to a transformation in young people. Such experiences develop a mysterious dynamic of their own which leads to violence being experienced as an intoxicating triumph, as crossing the threshold of everyday experience.

Their victim becomes the perpetrator. Anyone who had entered the spiral of the revelatory experience of violence would quickly glorify it and give it a mythical aura: “Proving oneself gloriously in battle, which inspires the imagination, is intended to bypass the gap between the threatening possibility of being or remaining a nobody and the possibility of being in the forefront.” (Sutterlüty)

Such an experience of omnipotence through violence is similar to an initiation experience. Many young people do not shy away from taking the dark path of black initiation methods. It starts with so-called “revulsion training” and with violence and cruelty towards animals and people and ends with systematic black magic training. The American journalist Bill Buford has documented how this revelatory violence can be found particularly in the zone of football stadia where in the “third half” the hooligans fight it out.

In still closer proximity to the anthroposophical interpretation of violence we find the school of depth psychology with its founder Carl Gustav Jung. In his wake it was for example the mythologist Joseph Campbell (The Hero with a Thousand Faces), the writer Robert Bly (Iron John), the psychotherapist Paul Rebillot (The Hero’s Journey) or Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette, both also Jungians, with their cult book King, Warrior, Magician, Lover who gave respectability to the theory of archetypes.

Moore/Gillette, for example, protrays the struggle of man to rise from the lows of the collective unconscious up to the sunny pastures of a transformed “hero personality” which has risen to become a “spiritual warrior”. But in order to awaken the “peace warrior” in ourselves, the “non-poisonous passion to help” must be developed in the young person, as Kurt Hahn, the father of experiential education, formulated it. True challenges and practical tests are the educational magic powers which can transform the unredeemed aspects of violent children or young people.

In the lecture which Rudolf Steiner gave on 11 September 1920 in Dornach, he developed an at the time completely new insight into the origin of violence: “... now the time begins in which the souls bring with them images from the spiritual world as they descend into earthly life through conception and birth. Images, when they are brought along out of the spiritual life into this physical life, must without fail combine with the astral body if good is to arise for human beings and their social life. (...)

The austerity ... of modern times is a basic character trait and there are indeed broad streams today which are resistant to ensuring through education that what rises up in the soul and wants to establish itself in the astral body can really do so. (...) The child has forces located in their body which will rip it apart if they are not raised in pictorial representation.

And what is the consequence? These forces are not lost; they spread, they obtain existence, they enter into the thoughts, the feelings, into the will impulses. And what kind of people are created as a result? Rebels, revolutionaries, dissatisfied people (...) When the world is in revolution today, it is the heavens which are in revolution; in other words, the heavens which are held back in the souls of human beings and which then appear not in their own form but in their opposite, which appear in fighting and blood instead of imaginations.”

He subsequently expressed these thoughts even more clearly in addressing the Waldorf teachers. It was their primary task to develop “the most intense interest in the riddles of the world” at the start of puberty. If the teachers did not succeed in directing the soul forces which were liberated at puberty outwards into the world, they would turn inwards, be loosed off into the compulsive instinctual realm and result in volence (“power trip”).

Violence arises when the interest of young people in the world fails to be awoken and they are left in their psychological self-centredness. Violence is not a natural phenomenon – something which numerous psychologists still believe today and in accordance with which teachers are still teaching today in a shockingly unquestioning way.

About the author: Dr. Michael Birnthaler, Waldorf teacher, founder and director of EOS-Erlebnispädagogik (www.eos-ep.de; holiday camps, class trips), EOS-Freiwilligendienste (www.eos-fsj.de), and the Allerheiligen Conference Centre at the Black Forest National Park (www.eos-allerheiligen.de)