Rudolf Steiner was an intellectual mystic and polymath who lived nearly a century ago. He developed a philosophical and spiritual system called “anthroposophy.” “Anthropos” meaning human, and “Sophia,” meaning wisdom. Steiner was prolific—he produced thousands of lectures, wrote many books, and developed systems of medicine, education, architecture, and what he would come to call the “occult sciences.” Many readers will be familiar with the Waldorf schools, but few know that Steiner’s anthroposophical vision of a spiritual education—based on psycho-spiritual principles of childhood development—were behind them. Waldorf education continues to thrive today with over 1000 schools in 65 countries.
Steiner would also contribute to agriculture—far ahead of the organic movement—with biodynamic farming, and economics with early versions of cooperatives through CSAs, or community-shared agriculture. With the Goetheanum, a building in Switzerland, he would contribute to new, expressionist styles of architecture. Cultural philosopher John David Ebert describes Steiner as the “Aristotle of the New Age,” and with the prolific, “Renaissance Man” output of his life’s work, it would be hard to disagree.
His ideas would influence individuals like C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield (an “Inklings” fellow and friend alongside Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien), the environmentalist Rachel Carson (Silent Spring), the scientist James Lovelock, and many others.
Steiner’s thinking was rooted in his background in German philosophy—particularly the works of Goethe—and bringing together of imagination, intuition, and intellect. This, I believe, is what made him unique amongst 20th century mystics—he didn’t shy away from engaging with materialists, scientists, or philosophical nihilists of his day. Steiner’s anthroposophical philosophy worked towards uniting spirit and science, attempting to see through the materialism of his time—which is still present in ours—to present a vision of reality where the spiritual and the physical were utilized what we might call an imaginative science. He was also what we might call an “evolutionary mystic” and kindred soul to other contemporaries of his time like Teilhard de Chardin and Sri Aurobindo in that he saw the physical world as an outward process of inner, spiritual worlds. The human being was the product of a vast, evolutionary process rooted in those subtle, esoteric dimensions
Through Geisteswissenschaft, or “spiritual science,” Steiner believed a person could gain some level of mastery over their physical lives and spiritual destinies. They could realize greater degrees of freedom.
It is difficult to offer any version of an “Anthroposophy 101” for the reader. Steiner’s work is so vast, and so sprawling, that each take on it will be different. Each emphasis unique. So it’s my hope that this article will simply be a starting point for the curious reader—a biography, an overview, and a few recommended texts, places for those curious readers to wish to go further, and try some exercises.
So, where does one start? When in doubt, it is best to begin at the beginning.
Rudolf Steiner was born in 1861 in Austria-Hungary, now Croatia and spent his early years moving frequently with his parents. His first brush with the supernatural would occur while sitting in the waiting room at the train station where his father worked. He was around five or six years old. A woman entered the waiting room and approached him. She spoke: “Try now, and later in life, to help me as much as you can.” She turned and walked to the other side of the room before disappearing. Steiner would later find out, from his distraught father, that his aunt had committed suicide that same day. Gary Lachman, Steiner’s biographer, notes that Steiner had never met this relative or heard much about her until he saw her in the train station. In a lecture, Steiner notes it was from this moment on that he began to have access to another, supersensible world.
When he was eight years old, Steiner borrowed a book of geometry. It seemed to activate something in him, and gives us another insight into one of the key anthroposophical ideas. In his Autobiography, he writes:
“In this early relation to geometry I recognized the first beginning of the view of the world and of life that gradually took shape within me… It was impossible for me to regard thoughts as mere pictures we form of things. To me they were revelations of a spiritual world seen on the stage of the soul…I felt that knowledge of the spiritual world must actually exist within the soul as objective reality, just like geometry.”
For the anthroposophist, one’s own inner imagination and thought become tools for accessing spiritual realities. This idea relates to Carl Jung’s own model of the psyche, where one’s personal unconscious is inextricably linked to the collective unconscious, and a person can gain insights and personal growth through imaginative, visual exercises, or the “active imagination.”
“He who is unwilling to trust to the power of thinking cannot, in fact, enlighten himself regarding higher spiritual facts.”
Despite being sent to a trade school by his father, Steiner would take an interest in German philosophy, particularly the works of Goethe. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe deserves his own, if entirely brief, introduction. Both scientist and artist, he contributed to early ideas of evolutionary theory through a study of the morphology of plants, authored Theory of Colors, and is perhaps best known in the English speaking world for the novel Faust.
As I noted earlier, Steiner believed thought had a certain reality to it. It wasn’t just an abstraction about the world, but a way to somehow grasp reality. Lachman writes:
“Steiner believed that thinking itself could be developed in such a way that it could “take hold” of things, in the same way that we can in the physical world… thought… must be able to encounter the reality of things.”
Steiner eventually received his doctorate in philosophy, spending his early adult years studying German thought, moving from Goethe to other German thinkers like Fichte, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche. It was Nietzsche who he was actually able to meet, though when Nietzsche was already very ill, and in the care of his sister. The important takeaway from this period is one of Steiner’s first books: The Philosophy of Freedom (1894). Steiner mentions this book as containing, in philosophical form, everything that would eventually become anthroposophy.
Steiner’s pivot from traditional philosophy to occult metaphysics began in 1899 with an invitation by the Theosophical Society to talk to a gathering on Nietzsche. Steiner quickly became a popular speaker. By 1904, he was the leader of the Esoteric Society, a Theosophical organization for Germany and Austria. Unlike Helena Blavatsky—a prolific, intriguing historical figure in her own right and the founder of the Theosophical Society—and her successor, Annie Besant, Steiner wasn’t as interested in Eastern spirituality. Just as the West was increasingly looking to Eastern wisdom traditions—and this would only intensify in the 20th century with figures like Paramahansa Yogananda or D.T. Suzuki —Steiner sought to retrieve the mysticism present through Christian mystics and Western esotericists.
“Steiner spoke to his audience about people whom most rank-and-file theosophists weren’t familiar,” writes Lachman. “Meister Eckhart and Jakob Boehme, for example, both Christian mystics; the alchemist Paracelsus and Giordano Bruno himself, too.”
It was this major difference with the Theosophical Society that finally drove Steiner to break formal ties. When Annie Besant and Charles Leadbeater announced the coming of a new “World Avatar” in India, Jiddu Krishnamurti, Steiner finally left the Theosophical Society. His German branch would become the Anthroposophical Society.
Anthroposophy would swell in numbers, and it is from these years that practical applications mentioned earlier—from medicine to education—would begin. Steiner continued to be a prolific lecturer. The Goetheanum, a kind of physical manifestation of Steiner’s complex spiritual cosmology, would be constructed, only to be burned down in an act of arson. The first Goetheanum was made of wood, with curving, organic patterns and something of an otherworldly look to it—it looked like it came bubbling up from a dream space, evoking something to the effect of contemporary artists like the late H.R. Giger or Alex Grey’s CoSM.
The second Goetheanum would look equally surreal—associated with the German expressionist architectural movement—but this time it was made of concrete, and remains standing to this day in Switzerland.
*It’s interesting to note that Switzerland would play a prominent role for other 20th century philosophers and esotericists. The famous Eranos lectures, of which Carl Jung, Henry Corbin, and Mircea Eliade would attend, were held Ascona. Jung also lived in Zurich, which is the site of his Bollingen Tower. Jean Gebser would flee to Switzerland in 1939 and live there for the remainder of his life.
By 1924, Steiner’s health began to decline. He wrote his Autobiography: Chapters in the Course of My Life and, in March of 1925, would pass away at the age of 64. He left behind an organization that would continue to grow, and the forward thinking legacy in the domains of education and medicine. Steiner was truly a force to be reckoned with. It is unfortunate that he died at a relatively young age—though perhaps not for the early 20th century—and one might wonder if he simply worked too hard for his own health. Regardless, Steiner left behind a tremendous legacy.
For an excellent biography on Rudolf Steiner, get a copy of Gary Lachman’s Rudolf Steiner: An Introduction to His Life and Work, and read Steiner’s own biography, Autobiography, for free online here: http://wn.rsarchive.org/Books/GA028/TSoML/GA028_index.html
“There slumber in every human being faculties by means of which he can acquire for himself a knowledge of higher worlds. Mystics, Gnostics, Theosophists — all speak of a world of soul and spirit which for them is just as real as the world we see with our physical eyes and touch with our physical hands.”
Throughout his life, Steiner claimed to have a faculty of perception to see into other realities—or supersensible worlds. He would write about them prolifically and with fascinating detail. Even today, with decades of published New Age texts, “channeled” writings, and the easy, digital availability of esoteric literature, Steiner’s lectures and books hold up as uniquely captivating. Strangely compelling. Despite their strangeness, there is something about them that actually holds true. If not literally true, then perhaps in some other way, they provide deep insight into the human soul, our spiritual condition.
For the curious who want to delve deep into Steiner’s cosmology—his sweeping vision of higher worlds the history of consciousness—I highly recommend picking up Cosmic Memory: Prehistory of Earth and Man.
For now, a simple overview of anthroposophical ideas related to humanity, spirt, and evolution is in order—simple being an understatement.
“The time has come to realize that supersensible knowledge has now to arise from the materialistic grave.”
Steiner believed that modern human consciousness was different from our ancestors. We had developed a keen intellectual ability, but our intuitive sense had atrophied. We had fallen out of what Owen Barfield called an “Original Participation” with the universe, without figuring out how to regain it somehow, through a “Final Participation.” In Steiner’s language, this was the purpose of occult science: to bring the intellect online with a consciously realized imagination, intuition, and inspiration.
Gary Lachman, in The Secret Teachers of the Western World, suggests that the kind of consciousness Steiner is referring to when discussing intuition and imagination has to do with the right side of the brain—the domain, generally speaking, of intuition, the imagination, and the unconscious.
Imagination, intuition, and inspiration have yet to be consciously mastered in the same way that reasoning and intellect have in the modern mind. The purpose of anthroposophy as an occult science is to bring the full person “online,” as it were, and achieve an inner science. An occult science.
According to Anthroposophy, the human body is made up of multiple bodies, or “koshas”, which Steiner adapted from Indian philosophy (German thought had begun to write about Indian philosophy for some time, especially in the works of Schopenhauer).
First, there is the physical body. This is our material self. Our atoms and molecules. Next, there is the etheric body, which is the animating force behind matter—what makes living things different from non-living things. This form of consciousness is a kind of dreamless consciousness that Steiner related to a kind of plant, or vegetative mind. Then there is the astral body. This is the dreaming body. The body of the imagination. Lastly, there is the Ego, or self-consciousness. This kind of consciousness is unique to human beings, while other living things only have the previous two. Steiner’s Ego shouldn’t be confused with the Freudian ego. It’s more like the Jungian concept of the “Self,” or the individuated and unique personhood each of us are capable of. Each of these bodies, or dimensions, are folded into each other. The idea in Steiner’s anthroposophy is to let the higher dimensions actualize and help the lower, while at the same time, allow the lower dimensions to reach up and engage the higher.
Health problems in the physical body might have their origins in the etheric body, for instance, so Steiner taught exercises to help a person begin to access their etheric body. These would involve imaginative exercises, like visualizing a plant slowly growing from a seed.
In the esoteric process of incarnation—Steiner believed in reincarnation and karma—the human being grows down into the world through the creation of these bodies—from Ego, to Astral, to Etheric, to Physical. When we die, our Physical and Etheric bodies also die, but our Astral and Ego bodies continue to live on and go through a complex series of events—involving moving through the spiritual worlds of the planets in our solar system—before being born again as a human. I won’t describe that process here, but you can read about it in Outline of Occult Science and Cosmic Memory. (This view is similar to how ancient Hermetic and Astrological systems saw the planetary bodies of our solar system as spiritual bodies. In Hermeticism, the initiate would travel through the celestial worlds to attain gnosis, or spiritual liberation.)
Steiner saw that modern humans had evolved to rely too heavily on intellect, while at the same time losing the ability—he called it clairvoyance—to participate consciously with spiritual realities. The aim of anthroposophy is to retrieve our lost connection with to the spiritual world without losing the achievements of modern consciousness. The wakeful daylight mind united with the nighttime, liminal and sidereal mind. Our current evolution task is to achieve imagination, intuition, and insight with wakeful clarity—there’s the tall order. The last century certainly has seen the rise of interest in altered states of consciousness and their relevancy for health, well being, and even human potential. Steiner was intuiting a century of coming to consciousness, but the work of integrating the intellect with intuition, or the left side of the brain with the right, is far from done.
With respect to the evolution of consciousness as a whole—that is, looking at the process of life on Earth—Steiner had an unorthodox view. He saw the human being, the Anthropos, as a kind of spiritual archetype. Something like a platonic form. This form has always existed, and it was life that evolved to gradually incarnate the the spiritual being of humanity. (Interestingly, this kind of evolutionary mysticism is also present in Teilhard de Chardin’s work—see The Phenomenon of Man—and Sri Aurobindo’s The Life Divine.)
There’s more to Steiner’s cosmology, including a creation myth, but that won’t be discussed presently. The final thing we need to review is the big, cosmic drama that takes place through the evolution of humanity. This, in particular, has been taken up by some contemporary consciousness scholars to apply to our time.
Was Steiner’s cosmology polytheistic, or monotheistic? Steiner did retain Christian mythology, but the anthroposophical Christ is very different from the Christian one. If there is a central motif in Steiner’s work, it’s balance. Integration. Mediation. If there is a central image or cosmic intelligence that is that mediation, it would be Christ. If you’re curious about this aspect, see Christianity as Mystical Fact: And the Mysteries of Antiquity. In Steiner’s cosmology, Jesus holds an important role, esoteric role that I can’t do just writing about here. In summary, Steiner did believe that Jesus was crucified, and his death and rebirth was crucial for recreating the spiritual body of the Earth.
Like a cosmic tide, there are two other forces: one pulling us down into the material realm, Ahriman, and the other pointing us upward into the celestial worlds, Lucifer. Steiner saw both of these forces, especially Lucifer, in a very different way from Christianity. Both were necessary, but both needed to be balanced. Ahriman gifts us with the modern, technological consciousness. Our inventiveness. He rules, as a principle, the mineral realm. Think about the explosion of technological innovation in the 20th century and its subsequent dangers—Steiner warned his fellow anthroposophists of the domination of the Ahrimanic powers in his century which, he believed, could potential lead humanity into a war of “all against all.” At the same time, Luciferic influences gives us the desire to transcend. Taken too far, Lucifer drives us to achieve lofty, godlike, spiritual heights and break off from the material world altogether. When either are taken too far, humanity becomes in danger of vast, cosmic imbalances. The Christ figure for Steiner was the ultimate mediator—the aim of humanity is to balance these powerful cosmic forces within us.
Regardless of whether or not you call it Lucifer, Ahriman, or Christ, the idea behind all of these cosmic stories rings truer than their particulars. There is something to Steiner’s visionary cosmology that was tapping into the runaway technological innovations of the 20th century; he intuited the vast, destructive forces we’d unleash then and sensed the evolutionary jumping point we found ourselves in, not only as a species, but as spiritual beings. So when we think about the Ahriman as a cosmic force, we can connect this idea to our computers—themselves representatives of that mineral realm with the rare earth minerals used to build our laptops and smart phones. We can question whether or not our humming, technological extensions—from phones to V.R.—are surrogates for our astral bodies, and whether or not that’s a good thing. We can contemplate the “war of all against all” in the hyper-fragmented digital world, or the dangerous industrialization—which we continue, today—threatening to tip climate change into an irreversible trend. That’s the Ahriman. We can also see the Luciferic principle oddly at work in techno-gnostics who wish to upload their minds onto computers and live forever, leaving the Earth and their “meat bodies” behind.
So Steiner’s imagination of cosmic forces and spiritual bodies is certainly a lot to take in, let alone believe. Yet, if there is one thing we can apply, presently, it’s that we don’t need to believe. The esotericist disavows literalism and reaches out into information like the kind presented here with their imagination. How does this all feel to you? What rings true? Between the real and unreal lies the realm of imagination, and it is in this realm that we gain wisdom. In the end, anthroposophy remains just that: human wisdom, and how to retain it in a world of vast, tempting imbalances. Steiner offers something of that wisdom for the world today.
The best place you can start—or at least where I started, and can personally vouch for—is Steiner’s How to Know Higher Worlds: A Modern Path of Initiation. Originally printed in 1904, this text provides a general explanation and instructions for meditative exercises. I first picked up this book in graduate school—I was doing a specialization in consciousness studies—and began to do the exercises in this book daily. I would imagine a seed growing its first roots, its first leaves, and then become a tree. Steiner encourages the reader to make intricate work of their visualization. Take note of each branch and leaf and the way the seed grows into a tree. The exercise goes on to include other parts, but I noticed the end result after a few weeks was that my visualization abilities had leaped to a new order of detail. Eventually, complex, geometry images—baroque architecture, and organic structures—began leaping into my mind. I couldn’t help but tie it back to Steiner’s early years with geometry, and I do wonder what he’d say about my experience.
I would also recommend Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path for another book of practical exercises and spiritual guidance.
I’ve already mentioned Lachman’s biography. It’s worth mentioning SteinerBooks, an anthroposophical publishing house, has a very active literary community with plenty of contemporary commentary and anthologies: https://steiner.presswarehouse.com/Books/Features.aspx.
Robert McDermott published The Essential Steiner, a collection of writings, and more recently, The New Essential Steiner: An Introduction to Rudolf Steiner for the 21stCentury.
McDermott has a very good and thorough interview on Steiner’s work and legacy in the 21st century, “The Challenge of Rudolf Steiner,” that you can find here:
William Irwin Thompson’s Imaginary Landscape—as well as some of his other works—have especially taken an interest in Steiner’s idea of the Ahriman, technology, and the evolution of consciousness. In 2006, Daniel Pinchbeck’s 2012: The Return of Quetzacoatl was inspired by Steiner’s evolution of consciousness to contemplate our evolutionary times.
The work of Conner Habib, an anthroposophist, former English professor, writer, and porn star, actively writes on occultism and philosophy in the modern world: https://connerhabib.com/tag/anthroposophy/
John David Ebert has a breathtaking audio lecture series on Rudolf Steiner (and which I reviewed before writing this essay) that you can find here:
Finally, the Rudolf Steiner Archive and Electronic Library has uploaded the vast majority of transcribed lectures, a tremendous resources for any curious reader, Waldorf teacher, or aspiring anthroposophist: http://www.rsarchive.org
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