There are countless ways we try to bring health to society, yet they almost always address one issue without seeing the whole. But society can’t be made healthy this way. It keeps changing, evolving. We can’t renew it without grasping the lawfulness of its evolution and the dynamic relationship of its parts.
“The individual stone is useless if it does not fit into the overall (building) plan. Reform the law, religion, or anything else — as long as you only take account of the particular item, without having an understanding of the whole, it only results in demolition…
All separate reform movements — emancipators, abstainers, vegetarians, animal protectors and so forth — are only useful if they all work together.” — Rudolf Steiner
But developing such an understanding is difficult. Rudolf Steiner, who worked tirelessly to make the wholeness of society visible (work that he called “social threefolding” because it addressed the relationship of the economy, government, and culture), left behind a vast trove of books and lecture cycles. But starting with a hefty book can be daunting. So what are some other ways?
The Whole Social is one such way, one that starts with the current events around us (though all the articles still have a specific focus — the most all-encompassing might be “Society’s Open Secret”). But what are the best doorways out of Steiner’s work itself?
Below is a collection of articles that are all great starting points because of their brevity, scope, and power. They’re accessible and also provocative. They’re juicy. In addition, many are about topics that are harder to come by from a threefold perspective, so folks already immersed in threefolding may be especially excited to discover them.
I hope you enjoy.
(PS — below these articles I’ve also shared some of the books that I think are the best to start with, as well as a few other related resources.)
(PPS — there’s one translation issue to be aware of when reading. The word that Steiner uses to describe the life of culture is “Geistesleben,” which means the life of the mind or spirit. This can be confusing as all three terms are used at times.)
4th Preface to "Towards Social Renewal" by Rudolf Steiner
7.04MB ∙ PDF file
This short preface to Steiner’s basic book on threefolding, “Towards Social Renewal,” gives a great overview of some of the key insights from the book. Though he leaves the details of many of his observations to the book itself, nonetheless this preface serves well as a basic preview to stimulate further interest.Download
"Land, Means of Production, & Commodities" by Rudolf Steiner
4.01MB ∙ PDF file
In these brief remarks at a study group in 1920, Steiner touches on some of the most crucial aspects of threefolding, demonstrating the kind of discernment that needs to be cultivated. Many of his indications are developed more fully elsewhere, but this short piece is a wonderful introduction to the kind of living flow of his thought. In it he elucidates the three most material aspects of economic life - land, means of production, and commodities; the effects of forced migration (displacement); the need to discern the delicate weaving of threefolding - of human rights, needs, and talents; and the abstract nature of money and investment.
[This article is from the journal “The Threefold Commonwealth,” which can be found at the Rudolf Steiner Library in Hudson, NY.]Download
"The Central Question Of Economic Life" by Rudolf Steiner
146KB ∙ PDF file
This public lecture given in Oslo, Norway, is a fantastic introduction to threefolding and economics. In it, Steiner addresses how to think about social and economic science - how not to get caught in abstract utopian thinking, but how to think realistically (including the work of associations in forming valid economic judgements). He looks at the tension between collectivism and individualism; the “objective value” of commodities and the problem of treating land and capital as such; the relation between threefolding and the human organism; how we should understand the administration of the three sectors; the threefoldness of the economy (capital/land, labor, association); and many other topics.
[This lecture is currently not published in any book, and can only be found at the Rudolf Steiner Archives. That translation is somewhat rough, so I’ve lightly edited it for smoothness and clarity.]Download
Steiner on Picturing the Whole Work Process
17.3KB ∙ PDF file
This one-page excerpt is from a recollection of Rudolf Steiner by Herbert Hahn, one of the teachers at the first Waldorf school. In it, Steiner describes how organizations should empower workers to picture the whole of their activity, going so far as to suggest an educational curriculum for organizations.
[This writing can be found in the 1958 issue of The Golden Blade https://www.waldorflibrary.org/journals/164-golden-blade.]Download
"Culture, Law, And Economics" by Rudolf Steiner
86.1KB ∙ PDF file
One of the best short overviews of threefolding. In it, Steiner describes some of the fundamental imbalances that can occur between the different spheres of society, and the most basic shortcomings that plague us.
[This article can be found in “Renewing the Social Organism.”]Download
"The Consequences Of Threefolding For Land" by Rudolf Steiner
5.28MB ∙ PDF file
This lecture has land at its focus, yet still touches on other aspects of threefolding in entirely original ways. Some of his topics include: the role that knowledge, laws, and contracts should play in determining culture, government, and economy (and the role of contingency in law); the difference between land and other means of production; seeing through (but still working with) “social lies,” like the commodification of land and our abstract money system; how we must learn to think anew in order to perceive society as an organism; and understanding road traffic in threefold terms.
[This lecture is currently not published in any book. It can be found at The Rudolf Steiner Library in Hudson, NY.]Download
"Ability To Work, Will To Work" by Rudolf Steiner
1.19MB ∙ PDF file
In this brief article, Steiner challenges the lack of forethought in socialism, pointing to the power of self-interest (egoism) and asking what would replace it in a cooperative, socialist economy. Socialists assume that people will naturally be motivated to work for the whole community, but Steiner contends that the motivation to work selflessly must be actively cultivated in people. Specifically, we need to experience the community that we’re working for - we need to feel its reality - and this can only happen through a proper relationship to culture (through education) and government (through active participation).
[This article can be found in "Renewing the Social Organism."]Download
"Brotherhood and the Struggle for Existence" by Rudolf Steiner
1.31MB ∙ PDF file
This lecture is one of Steiner’s most important early articulations of social lawfulness. Like most of his early offerings, he plants important seeds for what will be developed later in threefolding. He focuses on the polarity between collaboration and competition (the latter considered the key mechanism in the Darwinian and Capitalist worldviews), and shows where each has its rightful place. In the process, he touches on jurisprudence, medieval guilds, the power that can work through groups, and many other important topics.
[Though other translations of this lecture can be found on the Rudolf Steiner Archives (it’s unfortunately not in any existing books), I think this is the best translation.]Download
Notes from an 'Esoteric Lesson' with Rudolf Steiner
2.79MB ∙ PDF file
This short lesson (or lecture, the origins are unclear) was given early in Steiner's career. It covers many of the key ideas he brought at that time, as well as some interesting additions: social conditions are born of consciousness, so consciousness must be transformed; suffering is born of egoism; intellectual property; and others. It should be mentioned that these are the notes of one of his listeners - not a proper transcription - so they are not always entirely clear.
[This writing can be found in the collection, "Esoteric Lessons, 1904-1909,” published by SteinerBooks.]Download
"How Can Today's Poverty Of Soul Be Overcome?" by Rudolf Steiner
519KB ∙ PDF file
This lecture was given in 1916, a year before Steiner began speaking about social threefolding. In it he touches on what he calls the three great ideals of our epoch — social understanding, freedom of thought, and spiritual science. His thoughts concerning social understanding are especially interesting, as they point to the kind of practical psychology (of temperaments and dispositions) that he develops further in relation to the field of education. All in all, an important contribution to threefolding literature.
[This lecture can be found in the book "The Connection between the Living and the Dead."]Download
Besides these shorter pieces, it’s important to still point out some of the best books on threefolding. At the top of that list would be Towards Social Renewal, followed by Rethinking Economics (variously translated as World Economy and Economics), and then perhaps The Social Future. Also, there are a couple of really great compilations — one consisting of Steiner’s public articles called Renewing the Social Organism, and an especially rich compendium of some of his most important essays and lectures called Social Threefolding (edited by Stephen Usher).
Besides Steiner, there are also a number of other writers who have published on threefolding (mostly in German, but also in English). To go through such a list would take too long, but I’ll just mention two resources I think are under-appreciated: the social writings of Owen Barfield as well as the body of work that the Economics conference at the Goetheanum has built up.
Lastly, for those who are looking for a bit more guidance through these ideas, I’ve written a 12 lesson correspondence course called Transforming Society, which can be taken up by both individuals and groups.
What do you recommend when people ask, “Where should I begin with threefolding?” If you have further suggestions, please share them in the comments section below.
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