Of the Slaughter of Cows and the Softening of Brains

                          © Terry Boardman




                          This article first appeared in the German magazine “Info3″ in May 1996


Rudolf Steiner bade us look through the outer symptoms of historical developments to the spiritual causes beneath. Sometimes those symptoms have to appear in a grotesque, almost ludicrous fashion.

Steiner frequently drew attention to the significance of Joan of Arc’s victories over the English at the beginning of the modern epoch, referred to in Anthroposophy (spiritual science) as the epoch of the Consciousness Soul (1413). They began the process of turning England away from the Continent and out to the wider world, a process which would lead eventually to the birth of the United States from England’s womb and to the establishment of the world-spanning British Empire and the concomitant emergence of a world economy. A hundred years after Joan, Thomas More, Chancellor to the bull-like Henry VIII (1509-1547; he of the six wives), recorded his insights into the nature of the burgeoning Consciousness Soul epoch in his famous book “Utopia” (1515). More, still faithful to Rome, was executed by Henry for opposing Henry’s denial of Rome’s supremacy following his remarriage to Anne Boleyn, mother of the future Elizabeth I. Henry took Joan’s work a significant stage further by severing the spiritual bond of the Roman Catholic faith between England and the Continent that had existed for almost a thousand years and establishing the Church of England with himself as its head. Henry’s guards at the infamous Tower of London, who still today wear the uniform of his reign, came to be known as Beefeaters, and indeed, it was from this time that the eating of roast beef was associated with the English. Later, the French even came to refer to the English as ‘les rosbifs’ and by the 18th century, the English were eating enormous quantities of roast beef, no Sunday dinner being complete without it. From Elizabeth I (1558-1603) to Elizabeth II (1952-), during the whole period of England’s rise to and subsequent fall from world greatness, during that period then when Britain spread its materialistic culture of the industrial and commercial revolution around the world, the nation’s culinary communion on Sundays has been red roast beef surrounded by a few tasteless vegetables. “Where’s the beef?” is a phrase in English which means “What’s really at stake (sic!) here? What’s really important about this?”

British bulls and bulldogs
A herd of cows, heads down to the ground, self-absorbed, grazing peacefully on the undulating wave-like contours of the gentle English countryside – a quintessential English scene. No tempestuous black Spanish bulls here, thank you; English bulls are massive, solidly built, with thick short legs. The English bull came to be echoed in an equally solid national symbol  – the proud and portly John Bull, country yeoman, dressed in the period of Wellington and Trafalgar when England successfully defied Napoleon’s Continental System. It was also echoed in that other late 19th century national symbol, the British bulldog terrier which, despite its short stubby legs, pugnaciously asserted Britain’s imperial rights, its ugly muzzle snarling at all ‘damned foreigners’. Solid, practical, standing four-square on the earth, inherently balanced and common-sensical,  placid yet stubborn and fearsome when roused – such was the Englishman’s self-image in England’s heyday.

Sacred Cows
It was perhaps a supreme irony that much of Britain’s greatness and wealth, especially in the 19th century, came to depend upon her ability to milk the Land of Sacred Cows, India, for all she was worth . And it was above all, the vastness of India that turned the mind of many an Englishman and led to the national infatuation with the bombast of Empire and the imperial Idea in the latter decades of the 19th century, when Britain had already passed its peak,  The nation did not learn the right lessons from the embarrassing failures of the Boer War (1899-1902), and the bubble of bombast grew unabated in the first decade of this century until it finally burst in an appalling way in the symptom of the sinking of the Titanic, two years before the outbreak of the First World War. The Titanic was the world’s greatest ship, symbol of all Britain’s industrial, commercial, and political-imperial achievements over the previous two centuries and a floating microcosm of Britain’s class-ridden society. Yet again, the lesson was not learned; after the war, the Empire grew even bigger at defeated Germany’s expense, but then, like the Titanic, it began to settle in cold waters, sinking fast. Just fifty years later it had all but disappeared beneath the swelling waves of independence.

But the domestic social problems of the class society with its political divisions remained. Margaret Thatcher, an iron woman in the fiery mould of Joan of Arc or Elizabeth I emerged to tackle them head on with great violence. Her “Conservative” Party sought to transform Britain’s stubborn complacent ways and turn it into ‘the dynamic free enterprise centre of Europe’. But another remarkable sign of the times was shown to the nation when at the peak of Thatcher’s ‘Me-First’ decade, the British ferry “The Herald of Free Enterprise” sank at Zeebrugge with a great loss of life. Zeebrugge: Belgium, to defend which Britain had entered the First World War; Belgium, whose capital Brussels is also the capital of the emerging federal Euro-state so much feared or despised in Britain, and upon which Margaret Thatcher, notably since her famous speech in Bruges, Belgium, in 1988, has consistently poured scorn. Two years after Zeebrugge, Thatcher was forced from office, and today, her decade of the 80s is widely looked upon with dismay and embarrassment for its rank materialism, its greed, selfishness, and corruption.

Britain under Gabriel and Michael
Britaain’s rise to power and greatness coincided almost exactly with the age of the Archangel of the Moon, Gabriel (1510-1879). As the Regency passed to Michael, Britain’s sun was already beginning to set. During this first period of the Consciousness Soul epoch, Man’s attention was turned to the outer physical world, and Rudolf Steiner has described how, in that Gabriel time, the human brain itself was altered by the hierarchies so that it could orient itself more completely towards this physical reality and, in the process of mastering it, prepare the human spirit to realise its own true nature. Britain has played a major part in that necessary process of orientation to the earthly world. Steiner also indicated that the British Folk Spirit descended into the British Folk Soul and began to engrave nationality into the physical element at about 1650. This was during the English Civil War (1642-53) when, in 1649, the English became the first people in Europe to execute their monarch, Charles I, in public after a trial for treason against the people. A republic was then established under the leadership of the Puritans and the Army. It lasted only 11 years before the people tired of it, and still suffering from the psychic aftershock of that royal execution, they called back the dead king’s son and reinstituted the monarchy. The new king, Charles II, proved to be one of the most dissolute monarchs ever. Within seven years of his return, his capital London had been destroyed by a great plague and fire. Under him and his successors however, during the next 50 years many of the great institutions that have served the nation during its rise to and fall from world dominion were established . It seems to this writer that then, when the Folk Spirit descended, in recoiling from the Republic and in reinstituting the monarchy and the class system which it defined and legitimised, the British people lost their collective nerve. Blind John Milton, the Puritan and greatest English poet of those days, sensed this when he wrote his finest work, “Paradise Lost” (1667). The social problems (class strife etc) of the Age of the Industrial Revolution were in large part the consequence of this loss of nerve.

Today, after the tragi-comical goings-on of the Windsor family, republicanism is very much in the air again. Charles III, or perhaps even Elizabeth II may be the last monarch of a united Britain. The Union with Scotland dates back to 1707. The Northern Ireland problem has its roots in the settlements and battles of the 17th century. Now there is much talk of the imminent break-up of the United Kingdom. The traditional institutions dating from the 17th century have all been under attack in the last 17 years, many of them by the “Conservative” government, which is seeking to prepare Britain for a new role as member of a Transatlantic, not merely a European, Union. And now we see perhaps the most telling symptom of all: Europe and the world bans British beef because it is suspected of causing brain disease in humans. This came to light in the 1980s and resulted from the appalling practice of some economically zealous British farmers of feeding dead animals to their beef cattle herds. The food scare has now brought the British beef market to the verge of collapse; there is great unease among the people. The government is even considering the possibility of slaughtering the entire national herd of 11 million cattle in a bid to eradicate the disease. The national diet itself is changing as the British are literally forced to give up their roast beef, symbol of their very national character. Will they become, like their former Indian subject peoples, largely a community of vegetarians? And what will this mean for the changing role of Britain in the world?

When, as individuals, and also as communities, we do not take our own lives in hand and, recognising the new needs of the times, make necessary adjustments, then life itself will change us from without, often by painful medicine. For most of this century, it must be said that the ever phlegmatic British have largely failed to read the signs of the times. They are now bewildered by the changes which are being forced upon them. We are witnessing the signs of the end of the Gabrielic dispensation in Britain, a hundred years too late. During the Age of Gabriel, Britain, like its cows, had its head to the ground, its Moon-brain oriented to the secrets of the earth. And yet, as Steiner so often pointed out, it is often the materialists who least understand the world of matter. By perverting nature and feeding dead animals to herbivores, the farmers have brought about a softening of the animals’ brains (bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE). Maybe this is actually what we Britons need most now – a softening, or loosening of our brains, from the necessary material concerns of the past 300 years, so that we may reorient our brains and our minds to the imaginations and inspirations of the spirit. Only then will it be possible for Britain to take hold of the impulses of Goetheanism and the threefold social order and make something of them as Rudolf Steiner predicted that it would. Then Britain would be able to take the wholesome path out of the era of the Industrial Revolution, the heritage of the Gabrielic epoch, into the much-trumpeted Post-Industrial era, “the information age”, which is actually supposed to be the era of spiritual knowledge, the age when Man offers up his intelligence to Michael.

NOTES ( N.b. GA  -  Gesamtausgabe  – refers to Rudolf Steiner’s collected works)

1 . See for example lecture of 15 Jan. 1917 GA 174
2 . See lectures of 16-17 Dec. 1916 GA 173
3 . In his booklet “West-East” Walter Johannes Stein wrote that England and India were drawn together by destiny because each had been developing a complementary aspect of the Consciousness Soul, England the material and India the spiritual. Unable to provide its own spiritual sustenance England sought it in Indian spirituality. One of the results was the Theosophical movement mediated by the Russian H.P. Blavatsky.
4 . lecture of 28.7.1924 GA 237
5 . lecture of 16.3.1915 GA 157
6 . During the years of the Great Plague and Fire 1665-6, Isaac Newton wrote his seminal work “Of Colours” later incorporated into Book One of his “Opticks”. His 20th century successor as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University is the internationally renowned Stephen Hawking, who is severely crippled and speaks through a computer.
7 . See lecture of 13.10.1923 GA 229 for the influence of Gabriel on human nutrition and metabolism during the course of the year and 19-20.10.1923 GA 230 for the spiritual nature of the cow and its metabolic process.

©Terry M. Boardman   1996

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