Although they have been around for a hundred years, Steiner’s ideas for a reformed social structure are difficult to understand and even more difficult to implement. Perhaps because it is tempting to look for a clear pattern in them, while like everything that comes from the spirit they strive for freedom.
What follows is an introduction to the social trinity.
by Omri Elaad
If we were to count the number of times Rudolf Steiner warned in his writings and lectures that social threefolding is not an abstract plan for the optimal organization of society, we would reach a fairly high number. Social threefolding is not an abstract plan, ideology or agenda, not even a model or theory. What is it, then, if not all of these?
The answer has to do with the fact that Steiner was first and foremost a spiritual teacher. Two things characterize such teachers and also link to social threefolding: first, they know that the Spirit is a kind of “master key” that provides an answer to the range of problems, conflicts and suffering we experience in our earthly world; The Spirit makes our earthly existence whole and is able to guide us in every subject in the light of wisdom. And the second, spiritual teachers of Steiner’s type, are in a constant state of humility and awe towards the unknown. They focus exclusively on the conditions that awaken the spirit in a person – but do not pretend to know exactly how, uniquely, the spirit will manifest itself – through each and every one. Dogmatism, of any kind, is incompatible with the inexhaustible renewal of the Spirit.
Antidote to human selfishness
Social threefolding, then, is not an abstract plan but rather the development of sensitivity to certain conditions that will allow the penetration of the spirit. What is it similar to? To a situation where a team of teachers is looking for the best way to develop a certain child in the class. Each member of the team can certainly express his opinion on the matter, but if they take the time to sit together, think and observe the child in all kinds of ways, things will emerge from their meeting that otherwise would not have emerged. The teachers have no way of knowing exactly what will come up in the meeting, unless they hold it. All they can know is that if the conditions are met for a special meeting of this kind – the potential will be there for the Spirit to express itself through them and for something new to be revealed.
Steiner carried these characteristics of personal spiritual work to the social level and innovated something for humanity: just as certain conditions can be developed to awaken the spirit on the personal level, so they can also be developed on the social level. And in any case, the more the social problems burn, the more we witness a growing need for the introduction of the Spirit on this level as well. There is a reciprocal feeding here: the personal development feeds the social one and vice versa. In recent years, with the intensification of social problems such as the climate crisis, social polarization and more – many feel an urgency to promote new forms of economy and governance. It is precisely around this trend that social threefolding should be integrated, since it is founded on the understanding that a complete and sustainable dealing with the variety of problems that the earthly world presents to us, will only occur with the awakening of the spirit – and offers the conditions for this awakening. It is not at all trivial to live on the basis of this assumption, but we must recognize that the question of the spirit sits at the very heart of social threefolding. The attempts to deal with the social problems while ignoring the fact that our world is designed around spiritual development – will tend to cause even more trouble sooner or later. Because, after all, these problems are symptoms that signal the neglect of this development. From wars through the climate crisis to the problem of poverty or the development of addictive technologies – it is difficult to think of a single social problem that is not originally a consequence of human egoism for which spiritual development may be an “antidote”. Those who see our social challenges from such a perspective will also recognize the critical necessity of social threefolding for our time.
Social threefolding identifies three types of relationships within social life: spiritual-cultural, ordering-political (laws, rules, norms, regulations) and economic. Each of these derives from a different source and serves a different purpose that will be optimally fulfilled under autonomous conditions. The purpose of spiritual relationships is everything related to development; The purpose of political relations is to preserve human dignity and rights; And the purpose of economic relations – the satisfaction of material needs. Steiner’s main claim is that for a society to be run in an optimal way, it is not necessary to organize it from a single center, but to ensure autonomy for each of the three dynamics (spirit, state and economy) – and thus, out of the autonomous interrelationships between them, the social order will emerge by itself.
Steiner found that the three values of the French Revolution: liberty, equality and fraternity, are related to every type of relationship, where freedom is related to the spirit, equality in politics and fraternity in the economy. The spirit, at the social level, is especially dominant in everything related to religion, spirituality, art, culture, education, higher education (and trainings of all kinds), science, entrepreneurship and leadership. What all these activities have in common is that they arise from the individual’s personal skills. These skills are actually the hidden and creative emanation from which society derives its innovations and development. One can never know what “living water” may arise from the emanation, and this is one of the reasons that precisely freedom is compatible with it – since no external factor, apart from the gifted person himself, is able to know what wants to be born from within. A commercial business is not free, as it depends on the production chains and the economic network, the public sector also depends on the state’s system of regulations and laws. The individual activity, on the other hand, relies only on itself. Therefore, the first condition for the introduction of the spirit into society is the liberation of the social spiritual life so that it constitutes an authority for itself.
In what sense is spiritual life today not an authority unto itself?
Today, for the most part, an artist or any intellectual is considered by society, and often by himself, to be a business owner. There is no distinction between the products of his work and other products or services. From another side of the issue, teachers and lecturers are considered state or public employees. The commercial-economic element associated with business and the clerical- bureaucratic element associated with state systems, distance these spiritual workers from the full expression of their talents, and are even able to lead to a place where there will be no connection at all between their activity and development. Therefore, it is first of all necessary to recognize that these are professions of a third type, which seek different conditions for themselves than those suitable for the economy or the state. The spiritual workers will of course still have to prove their necessity and make a living, but in a fundamentally different way than that of economic trade or public money.
Allowing Money to Die
Steiner claimed that the money paid within the three types of relationships (spirit, economy and politics) looks the same from the outside, but in its inner essence there is a huge difference, and in fact it is not the same money at all. To briefly summarize this wide-ranging topic, Steiner argued that like anything healthy that exists in cycles of life and death, so it would be healthy for money to decay after it was formed. If the money is only created and not allowed to decay, socio-economic diseases arise. What does a disease look like? As of 2022, 1 percent of the world’s population owns 46 percent of its wealth. From an objective point of view, which speaks of efficiency and not morality, there is no sense in accumulating capital on such a scale in individual hands. The surplus funds seem to be stuck in the cloud without coming back down to the ground – a mirror image suggesting the necessity for money to decay.
As long as we have not defined the life of the spirit, we are only left with the eternal debate between the two alternatives: economy and state. But after we have defined the spiritual life and pointed to it as a third element, the excess funds can be poured into them as a practical investment in our future. Subsidies, grants, scholarships and donations of all kinds are money that is exchanged for future profit – which will be embodied in the development of society. Just think how many talents will contribute to society if we develop a concept of autonomous freedom for their activities, while at the same time we understand the need to inject excess capital for their livelihood. It is important to clarify again that this is not about dispersing funds indiscriminately: as with any investment, there will always be “losses”. But the main question – typical of the investment world – will not be whether some of the funds went out without bearing fruit, but whether the overall profit exceeded the loss. That is, whether, and to what extent, we will all benefit from the fruits of the spirit that will be realized in the world as a result of this investment.
A first big step in the right direction would be to recognize all of this and consciously define the range of cultural-spiritual activities as a third field that stands on its own. The next big step will be to sanctify the autonomy of the field, with the understanding that it is actually the life resource of all of us. This sanctification will be expressed in great sensitivity to the way in which the need for livelihood or the submission to abstract laws are capable of depleting this resource and leading us to social degeneration. For example, the developmental element of the teacher’s work degenerates when the state dictates what to teach. Under the influence of the state, he practically becomes a kind of bureaucratic official who transmits information.
It is not necessary to do more than the sanctification of the autonomy of the spiritual life: in the same way that on the level of personal development, the ego – that centralized internal “administrator” in man, who measures and criticizes himself at every step – softens in view of the awakening of the spirit; Thus, as the political and economic influence over the spiritual activity softens, the vital contribution of the spirit to society will intensify.
About People and Apples
Political relations are fundamentally different from spiritual ones. Here we move from the emphasis on the individual to the emphasis on the relationship between a person and his fellow man. The gift of the spirit to society is development, the gift of politics, on the other hand, is social order. If at the root of spiritual relationships, we find personal skills, here rights lie at the root – and there is an essential connection between rights and the value of equality. For example, if I can’t play loud music in the middle of the night, my sense of entitlement wants to know that no one can. A selective law, which varies from person to person, loses its meaning and does not lead to social order. In this sphere, we are therefore happy that the activity is not free, but rather depends on the system of regulations and laws that we set for ourselves as a society through the state. Equality is the dominant value in this sphere of relationships and it is interesting to examine it against the background of the inequality built into the economy and the spirit: While the value of the apple seller (economy) changes in my eyes according to my need for apples, and the value of the writer (spirit) also changes in my eyes – according to my desire to draw from his spiritual springs, the value of my neighbour (social order), as far as his rights are concerned, belongs to him and is outside of my jurisdiction. Unlike a characteristic of the economy and the spirit, on the level of social regulation, any deviation towards selectivity will inevitably create discrimination and damage to human dignity. Thus, the value of equality is deeply rooted in the basis of rights relations.
While in the spiritual sphere we emphasized the individual and in the state we focused on the relationship between man and his fellow man, in economics we take another step out and emphasize nature or matter. The basis of economic relations is the commodity; The economy provides society with its material needs. Material is a limited thing by its very nature, and therefore inevitably a dynamic of one thing at the expense of the other, is created in the economy. This is a special and interesting dynamic that does not necessarily have to lead to negative associations of egoism, competitiveness and struggle. The value of brotherhood is reflected in the essence of the barter economy, where each of us is completely dependent on the goods produced by the other, and at the same time, each must respond to some need of the other if he wants to make a living.
Fraternity does not contradict the self-interested element of the economy: these relations are conducted from mutual and contrasting points of view at the same time. The reciprocity is expressed in that the apple seller prefers my five shekels over his apples and I prefer the apples over the five shekels in my pocket. The contrast is expressed in the fact that as the price of the apple rises – I will be forced to work more and produce more economic values in order to meet its price; And on the other hand, as it becomes cheaper, the farmer and the merchant will have to work and produce more apples to satisfy their needs. Steiner reiterated that the economy, with its material friction and conflicting interests, is full of potential for us to transcend through brotherhood, where any such transcendence progresses us in our development. Steiner proposed that the conflicting economic interests around the question of price should not be settled arbitrarily and blindly by the forces of demand and supply but from an objective observation that takes into account the point of view of all stakeholders, from the producer to the consumer, and reaches agreements.
Conflicting interests can indeed exist in political relations as well, but what lies at their base is not matter, with the inherent limitation that characterizes it. Therefore, if according to a certain voting system one side’s position defeated my position, I do not have now “less” than something that was in my possession and has now passed to the opposing side. Even in spiritual life there is no dynamic of conflicting interests as these work in the economy. Even if one person thinks an idea is good and another thinks it is bad – there may be some kind of competition between the ideas, but nothing will detract from the possession of the side whose opinion was not liked. Not so with the conflicting interests surrounding the question of the price of the apple – in which something will always detract from the holding of one of the parties.
The Sanitation Workers at the Bookstore
After reviewing the three types of relationships and characterizing the differences between them a little, it is also important to emphasize that each such type fits into the other two. Before we try to illustrate this integration, I will mention that the various social dynamics get their character from their purpose: development, protection of human rights and satisfaction of material needs. As an example of spiritual activity, let’s take a person who writes a book: the economic aspect of his spiritual activity would be, for example, his ability to support himself while writing and everything related to the publishing process. The rights aspect of his activity will be expressed, for example, in that he will have copyright on the book. What actually makes his activity spiritual? The very fact that he develops something.
As an example of economic activity, consider the owner of a bookstore: the spiritual aspect of his economic activity is expressed in the development of his business – from the level of the idea to its realization, as well as in all his management decisions. The rights aspect of his activity will be expressed, for example, in his shop’s property tax payments to the municipality. And why is his activity economic? Because he is in the shop to sell books. This is a response to a material need that the store owner provides for the writers and book consumers.
We will complete this illustration using the municipality’s sanitation workers who came to the bookstore following a complaint from the store owner about the smell of sewage coming from the street. The salaries, the vehicle, the work tools, etc. will constitute the economic aspect of their activity. Their skill in fulfilling their role will constitute the spiritual aspect. And what makes their activity public? The fact of being there to protect the residents right to health. We therefore received a complex picture, in which we emphasized the essential differences between the three types of relationships and saw how in each type of relationship there are also aspects of the other two.
How, then, do the lives of the participants in these examples change, in a society that has awakened to a social threefolding? Firstly, society will look at the writer differently than today, it will understand her necessity and be ready to invest in her for its future. Thanks to the spiritual autonomy, the bookstore owner and the sanitation workers will probably be more moral in their work, and perhaps even more creative, since the spiritual autonomy may also influence and increase the spiritual aspects of the state and the economy.
Be that as it may, it is important to understand that social threefolding takes on its meaning only when it is applied to social entities of the type called “states” today, and not to institutions or localities that are part of such entities. Because, an autonomous meaning is obtained only when there is no hierarchy, and there is no need to decide which of the three aspects – spirit, economy or politics – is the main one. When talking about an institution or a locality, the autonomous division of the three aspects loses its meaning: there will always be one aspect that rightfully prevails over the others. In most localities, for example, what is at the base – as the essential and purposeful factor – is the right to residence. Therefore, in most settlements, if a resident comes and wants to impose certain spiritual activities on all the residents, his neighbours, who see the settlement as an institution belonging to the political sphere, will most likely rise up against him. On the other hand, in a learning community, the residents may rebel against the trend of settling for residential purposes only, while depleting the spiritual activity for which the settlement was established.
If we want to apply threefolding at the micro level, we can develop spiritual and economic initiatives that are aware of being parts of the triangle and strive to act in its spirit. Spiritual initiatives will strive for autonomy according to the principle of freedom, and economic initiatives will strive for autonomy in the spirit of brotherhood. In addition, the very identification of the three forces as aspects of the enterprise, may contribute to creating harmony in the institution and maintaining its health.
Preventing the Disease
Two categories of social problems are thus addressed through social threefolding. One, problems arising from mixing up the types of relationships. In the example of educators, we saw how the motif of bureaucracy could mix disruptively in the sphere of spiritual relationships. In such a case, it is a healthy motif mixed in an inappropriate context. The second category includes problems caused by, for example, moral corruption or greed, which are not a healthy motif looking for its appropriate context – but rather phenomena that should simply be avoided as much as possible. At the beginning of the article, I stated that all the social problems we suffer from originate in human egoism and I mentioned that threefolding deals with this category through the liberation of spiritual life. Thus, paraphrasing AD Gordon’s famous quote: instead of fighting the darkness, Steiner made a pragmatic proposal for how to increase the light.
We will end with a short example, topical for Israel, of how the essential distinction between the three types of relationships provides an answer to the first category, that is, to types of relationships that are mixed against their advantage. In my understanding, the developmental element of ultra- Orthodox Judaism today mixes in a disruptive way with the egalitarian element of politics, when the equal right to vote for the Knesset serves the strengthening of spiritual interests. Things that are done in the context of spiritual development, such as learning Torah and living a halachic lifestyle, have been mixed into the space of formal measures such as laws and regulations, bureaucracy, public funds, etc. If the purpose of public life (protection of human dignity and rights) had been sharper and clearer – not as an agenda, but from a deep understanding of the essential difference between the three types of relationship – we would have stood on a much healthier foundation in this matter, and religion would have remained completely free to flourish and prosper, while being completely separated from the political field. An intelligent view that distinguishes between the three relationship dynamics and differentiates Between them, wherever differentiation is necessary – helps in preventing the accumulation of tensions. Or, as an ancient Chinese proverb teaches: “The right way to cure a disease is to prevent it.