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The Art of Goethean Conversation

Conversation as we know it in the twenty-first century is not more glorious than gold, says Marjorie Pock. We attach the term to every casual exchange, to the most idle, inconsequential chit-chat, she says. But Goethean conversations differ at least as much again from those of the salon, she adds.

Group Moral Artistry II


Marjorie Spock


Conversing, as Goethe conceived it, is the art of arts. The very
place in his works where the subject finds mention lets us glimpse
its singular rank in his esteem. This is in a key scene of his fairy
tale, The Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily. There, the four kings
enthroned in the subterranean mystery temple are roused to the
dawning of a new Age of Man when the serpent, made luminous by
the gold she had swallowed, penetrates with her light into their dark
sanctuary, and the following dialogue takes place:

\u201cWhence came you hither?\u201d asked the golden king.
\u201cOut of the clefts where gold dwells,\u201d replied the serpent.
\u201cWhat is more glorious than gold?\u201d
\u201cWhat is more quickening than Light?\u201d

Unless one understands what Goethe meant one can feel
disappointed at the serpent’s answer, which scarcely seems the
revelation one expected. For is conversation as we know it in the
Twentieth Century really more glorious than gold, more quickening
than light? Hardly! We attach the term to every casual exchange, to
the most idle, inconsequential chit-chat. Surely, we feel, the term
must have come down in the world since Goethe’s day, suffering
severest diminution in its slide.

That this is indeed the case becomes apparent when we recall the
salons of earlier centuries where great minds came together for
significant talk. These occasions were of a wholly different order
from our social happenings. They were disciplined, where ours are
chaotic, built around a common purpose, mutually enriching rather
than depleting. It is impossible to picture the participants in a salon
all talking at once, babbling away on as many subjects as there
were pairs of conversationalists present. No! The star of a theme
hung over the assemblage as over a pool studded with crystals, and
the responsively scintillating crystal intellects took turns voicing the
reflections awakened in them.

But Goethean conversations differ at least as much again from
those of the salon as did the salon from today’s cocktail party. Their
purpose is to call forth a fullness of spiritual life, not to stage
displays of intellectual fireworks. They have nothing in common with
the salon’s formal play of light-points sparkling in cold starlit glitter.
Instead, they strive to enter the sun-warm realm of living thoughts
where a thinker uses all himself as a tool of knowledge, where \u2013 in
the manner of his thinking \u2013 he takes part as a creative spirit in the
ongoing creative process of the cosmos.

But this is to say that a true Goethean conversation takes place
across the threshold, in the etheric world, where thoughts are
intuitions (cf. Rudolf Steiner’s Philosophy of Freedom), — that it
breaks through into the realm of First Causes.

Lesser types of interchange never do this; they remain mere
mentalizing, speculation, argument, a recounting of experience, an
offering of opinion, a reporting. At their best they are nothing more
than disciplined discussion, at their worst a mindless associative

While most of these lesser forms of exchange can be made to serve
useful purposes, the fact that they remain on this side of the
threshold condemns them to spiritual barrenness; they leave earth
and those who take part in them unfulfilled. They cannot overcome
the isolation with which every man born since Adam feels afflicted.

But true conversations have that power. As the participants strive to
enter the world of living thought together, each attunes his intuitive
perception to the theme. And he does so in the special atmosphere
engendered by approaching the threshold of the spiritual world: a
mood of supernaturally attentive listening, of the most receptive
openness to the life of thought into which he and his companions
are now entering. In such an attitude the consciousness of all who
share it shapes itself into a single chalice to contain that life. And
partaking of that divine nutriment they partake also of communion,
of fellowship; they live the Grail experience of modern man.


We have found Goethe depicting conversation as the art of arts. If it is indeed such, and we aspire to it, what does its practice require of us? Surely no amount of inspired groping will suffice; techniques of a very special order must be cultivated.

Perhaps the first pre-requisite is to be aware that the spiritual world
beyond the threshold wishes every bit as keenly to be known to us
as we wish to know it. It does not have to be taken by assault; it
comes gladly to meet us, much as a wise and loving teacher
responds to the warmth of a student’s interest. And no one
genuinely eager to approach such a teacher with the proper
reverence fails to elicit his responses. The spiritual world is no less
eager to meet our interest. We recall Christ\u2019s assurance of this:
\u201cSeek, and ye shall find. Knock, and it shall be opened unto you.\u201d

The seeker’s attitude thus proves a magically evoking wand that,
like the rod of Moses, unlocks a flow of spiritual life. One must know
this to be a fact, both in one’s own and others’ cases. Then the
group\u2019s consciousness becomes indeed a common vessel in which to
receive such illumination as the world beyond the threshold may, on
each given occasion, find it suitable to offer.

But one cannot step with a single stride from ordinary thought and
chatter into Goethean conversation. The latter requires the most
loving preparation. Thoughts must first beconceived like children,
and then brooded out in the spirits of the thinkers. To this end the
theme of a meeting is set in advance. Each member of the group
lives with it as a developing concern in his meditation. As the day of
foregathering draws near he begins to anticipate coming together as
a festival of light which, if he and his fellows have done their work
well, will lead to their illumination by the spiritual world.

What, specifically, is meant bywork here? Certainly not the
production of any finished concepts, the amassing of quotes from
authoritative sources, the getting up of a resume of reading done.
Thinking and study engaged in prior to a meeting rather serve the
purpose of rousing the soul to maximum activity so that it may
come into the presence of the spirit all perception. Work of this sort
is a warming up, a brightening of consciousness to render the soul a
dwelling place hospitable to insight. One must be willing to sacrifice
previous thinking, as one does in the second stage of meditation, in
order to clear the scene for fresh illumination.

The principle here is the same as that advanced by Rudolf Steiner
when he advised teachers to prepare their lessons painstakingly and
then be ready to sacrifice the prepared plan at the dictate of
circumstances which may point to an entirely fresh approach to
their material If one is well prepared, he said, one will find the
inspiration needed. Indeed, the principle is common to all esoteric
striving. Invite the spirit by becoming spiritually active, and then
hold yourself open to its visitation.

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