Rudolph Steiner

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black and white photo of man in suit with arms crossed looking into the camera [1]
Rudolf Steiner in 1905

Rudolf Steiner (1861 - 1925) was born in the Kingdom of Hungary, but spent most of his childhood in Austria [2] He made contributions to philosophy, social reform, architecture, and education during his life. He is connected with esotericism, clairvoyance, spiritual renewal, and many other supernatural or mystical ideas. Steiner is controversial: he believed that he was clairvoyant, that disease could be explained as an affliction of the “astral body”, included racist sentiments in some of his many published works or lectures, as well as many other particularly troubling ideas. Many respect him as a philosopher, architect, or reformer (or one of his many other roles) - particularly for discussing certain spiritual ideas that could benefit children and adults, such as the consideration of the arts, nature, and imagination in daily life. [3] For a time in the early 20th century, he was deeply connected with the Theosophical Society before leaving to found another philosophical movement that he named anthroposophy . Anthroposophy is a human developmental philosophy that centers on a holistic spiritual approach to nearly every aspect of daily life [4]. It claims to be a “spiritual science”, and considers a systematic analysis of thoughts and feelings as empirical evidence for the existence of the spiritual world . Steiner wrote 28 books and gave more than 300 lectures in his lifetime [5][6], and has had a lasting impact on spiritual and scientific communities alike.

Biography

Steiner spent most of his childhood in the Austrian countryside.[7] After a brief attempt at enrollment in the village school, he was taught to read and write by his father.[2] Even as a child, he felt a deep connection to the spiritual world. Writing in his autobiography, he said that “the objects and occurrences which the senses perceive are in space. But, just as this space is outside of man, so there exists also within man a sort of soul-space which is the arena of spiritual realities and occurrences … the reality of the spiritual world was to me as certain as that of the physical” [7]. This firm belief in the spirituality of everyday life informed Steiner’s public and personal philosophy for the rest of his life.

Secondary School

In 1872, Steiner (then 10 years old) was enrolled in the Realschule at Wiener-Neustadt. This was a secondary school that focused on science and technology. During his time at the Realschule, Steiner developed a passion for mathematics, especially concerning how he felt that the field interacted with spirituality[2]. Writing about his worldview at that time, he stated that “one can take the right attitude toward the experience of the spiritual world … only when one’s process of thinking has reached such a form that it can attain to the reality of being which is in natural phenomena”[7]. Due to this conviction, he dedicated himself to learning as much as he could about natural phenomena in order to gain a deeper understanding of the elusive spiritual world. During this time, Steiner incorporated Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason into his philosophy, and Kant would remain one of the essential influences in his beliefs until death.

Technological Institute of Vienna

In 1879, Steiner enrolled in the Technische Hochschule (Technological Institute of Vienna) after spending a summer in deep philosophical studies, determined to reach his goal of using knowledge to prove that “there was for me a world of spiritual beings”[7]. During his enrollment at the Technische Hochschule, Steiner would continue to search for a philosopher’s opinion or theory that would explain his deep connection to the spiritual world. Finding none, Steiner would eventually develop his own theories of knowledge (Anthroposophy especially)[2]. As a student in 1884, Steiner was asked to edit Goethe’s writings on nature. He was fascinated by Goethe’s writings on natural science and what they implied about his greater worldview. In 1886, Steiner published a book titled The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe’s World Conception[7]. This editing job gave Steiner experience and credibility in writing about philosophy. Steiner’s experiences writing, editing, and publishing during this time laid a foundation for his future published body of work.

Solidification of Personal Philosophy

At this time in his life, all of Steiner’s passionate ideas about philosophy and the spiritual world began to solidify into a more concrete theory of knowledge. In 1888, he met Eduard Von Hartmann in person, a philosopher with whom he had been communicating by mail. Von Hartmann believed that analysis of thought could never reach reality, which clashed with Steiner’s belief that using analytical methods could lead to a proof of the spiritual world[2]. Broadly speaking, Steiner was interested in theories of knowledge, ethics, spirituality, morality, and human freedom. While living in Weimar for his editing work on Goethe’s texts, he wrote a doctoral thesis titled Truth and Knowledge (subtitled “Prelude to a Philosophy of Freedom”), which was his first attempt at condensing his beliefs for public analysis. Steiner’s writings attempted to blend the methods used in mysticism and natural science. Michael Wilson (a Steiner follower who wrote the introduction to the 1964 edition of The Philosophy of Freedom) explained this approach: “Mysticism presents the intensity of immediate knowledge with conviction, but deals only with subjective impressions; it fails to deal with the reality outside man. Science, on the other hand, consists of ideas about the world, even if the ideas are mainly materialistic. By starting from the spiritual nature of thinking, Steiner was able to form ideas that bear upon the spiritual world in the same way that the ideas of natural science bear upon the physical.”[2] Proving the existence of the spiritual world that he had been fascinated by since he was a child was a lifelong goal of Steiner, and he was often met with criticism when he attempted to introduce his philosophical, spiritual, and mystical ideas into scientific spaces. Steiner’s fervent consumption of math, philosophy, and science texts meant that he borrowed from many influences when forming his beliefs, but he always underlined the existence of the spiritual word as the reason for his many fascinations.

The Philosophy of Freedom

The Philosophy of Freedom (published 1894) was another attempt to provide a solid “scientific” foundation for the spirit, with additional dialogues about how spiritual self-discovery led to human freedom. Steiner wrote “that freedom exists as a matter of fact for the unprejudiced consciousness and yet becomes a riddle for the understanding is due to the fundamental fact that man does not possess his own true being, his genuine self-consciousness, as something given from the beginning, but must first achieve this through an understanding of his consciousness with itself”.[7] Most critics of The Philosophy of Freedom believed that the “spirit” was purely conceptual, which deeply contrasts with Steiner’s views.

Further Works

Steiner was a prolific author; he wrote 28 books and gave more than 300 lectures in his lifetime[6]. He wrote books on other philosophers (Nietzsche and Goerte), Mysticism, Christianity, Theosophy, Spiritual Worlds, Anthroposophy, and Atlantis and Lemuria [5].

Death

Steiner died after a two year struggle with frailness and illness. He gave his last lecture in September of 1924, and died on the 30th of March 1925. He didn't believe that his illness was caused by anything that could be diagnosed by modern medicine (and instead came from an affliction of his astral body), though it has been suggested that he died of stomach cancer [8].

Associated Movements

Waldorf Schools

In 1919, Steiner was asked by Emil Molt (the owner of the Waldorf Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart, Germany) to open a school for the children of his employees. This specific type of private schooling philosophy expanded - today, there are more than 500 reported Waldorf schools worldwide [3]. Steiner based the teaching principles of the school on anthroposophy; students focus on art, nature, and imagination before any sort of formal curriculum. For example, students might not receive any formal instruction in reading or writing, but instead be read stories. Use of technology is often discouraged, because Steiner believed it to be harmful due to the interference it caused with the connection between a person and their spirit. Waldorf pupils will often practice “eurythmy” - a dance-language hybrid created by Steiner as a sort of educational art form [9]. The schools themselves have gained both strong praises and sharp critiques from global audiences.

Theosophy

Theosophy was a popular counter-cultural spiritual movement during the late 19th and much of the 20th century that greatly influenced social, political, and pseudoscientific ideas of the time. Theosophy was especially concerned with religion - they believed that only by blending the various mythologies of all world religions could one find the truth. Truth was to be pursued at all costs, and was valued above all else. Through this blending of magic, Eastern religions, spiritualism, misconstrued evolutionary science, and a lot of colonial racism, the theosophists believed that the world had been (and would be) populated by a series of “root races”; that lost continents like Atlantis and Lemuria had existed; and that ancient aliens had visited and inspired the human race [10]. According to theosophical beliefs, “modern humans” (read: white people) were descended from the fifth root race, called the Aryans. These beliefs were used to support genocide (as well as the construction of false histories to support propaganda-based national identities) in Nazi Germany. Steiner had his first contact with the theosophists when he met Fredrich Eckstein, who introduced him to a group of friends with esoteric ideas. Due to his devotion to spirituality, the alternative religion aspects of Theosophy piqued his interests. After moving from Vienna to Weimar, Steiner published an article on Goethe’s fairy tale “The Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily” that explained the esoteric significance he interpreted in the narrative. This article drew the interest of the Theosophical Society, and Steiner was invited to lecture at their lodge in Berlin. From this invitation, his connections and relationship to the movement grew stronger. In 1902, he was promoted to secretary general of the German branch of the Theosophical Society. The years he spent with them (1902 -1913) were some of his most productive - he published several fundamental works that contributed to the theosophical movement (and would later become core texts for anthroposophy)[4]. Around this time, Steiner experienced a pivot in his core beliefs that would eventually lead to his expulsion from the Theosophical Society. In The Philosophy of Freedom, Steiner adheres to a spiritual brand of monism that argues that one’s perception of an object is no different than the object itself. In his post-1900 work, however, the distinction between the material and spiritual worlds is a crucial piece of his arguments. This shift, combined with his increased contact with esoteric beliefs, allowed Steiner to develop an original speculative occult philosophy that contrasted more and more with the Theosophists’ set of beliefs. In particular, Steiner was interested in mysticism within Christian religious traditions - he believed that Jesus of Nazareth had undertaken a spiritual awakening to receive the “Christ” (a form of higher consciousness from the spiritual world), and that by following a similar path, everyone could unlock similar realities from the spiritual world [7]. The Theosophists were more interested in capitalizing on Western interests in Eastern religions. Eventually, the differences between their beliefs grew too great, resulting in Steiner’s expulsion from the Theosophical Society in 1913.

Anthroposophy

In 1913, as Steiner departed from Theosophy (taking most of the German theosophists with him), he founded his own movement: Anthroposophy. Anthroposophy took its influences from many disparate corners: reincarnation, karma, light and dark gods, Christianity, herbalism, Freemasonry, and other esoteric and religious traditions.[9] As a holistic philosophy, this framework is intended to be applied to every aspect of daily human life (schooling, medicine, agriculture, art, etc).

Reception & Public Perceptions

Anthroposophy has been criticised as cult-like, pseudoscientific, and generally harmful. Many people admire Steiner and follow his beliefs contemporarily, especially those who consider themselves “Waldorf parents”. Steiner’s insistence that his philosophy was informed through direct personal experience that should be considered fact [4] is where his foundational pseudoscientific ideas lie: scientifically speaking, no matter how “logically” one interprets their feelings, thought cannot be considered objective fact. Steiner often appropriated the terminology of science to give his ideas credibility, and though belief in many and varied forms of spiritualism has increased in recent years, devotion to holistic human development does not necessitate the abandonment of science.

References

  1. Vogele, Wolfgang. Steiner Um 1905. 1905.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 Wilson, Michael. “Rudolf Steiner.” The Story of My Life. [1].
  3. 3.0 3.1 Buren, Alex Van. “What Is the Waldorf School Method?” The New York Times, The New York Times, 23 Aug. 2019, [2].
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Hammer, Olav. Claiming Knowledge: Strategies of Epistemology from Theosophy to the New Age. Brill, 2004.
  5. 5.0 5.1 “Rudolf Steiner Books.” Rudolf Steiner Archive & E.Lib, The E.Lib, Inc., www.rsarchive.org/Books/.
  6. 6.0 6.1 “Rudolf Steiner Lectures.” Rudolf Steiner Archive & E.Lib, The E.Lib, Inc., www.rsarchive.org/Books/.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 7.5 7.6 Steiner, Rudolf. The Story of My Life (Authorised Translation. Edited by H. Collison.). London, 1928.
  8. Archer-Ginsburg, Hazel. “Insights on the Eve of Rudolf Steiner's Death.” Reverse Ritual, 29 Mar. 2017, [3].
  9. 9.0 9.1 Dugan, Dan. “Anthroposophy and Anthroposophical Medicine.” The Skeptic Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience, by Michael Shermer, ABC-CLIO, 2002.
  10. Card, Jeb. “The Ancient Alien Question: A New Inquiry into the Existence, Evidence, and Influence of Ancient Visitors. Philip Coppens. 2012. New Page Books, Pompton Plains, NJ. 320 Pp. $19.95 (Paperback), ISBN: 978-1-60163-198-5.” American Antiquity, vol. 80, no. 3, 2015, pp. 618–619., doi:10.1017/S0002731600003590.