“To truly know the world, look deeply within your own being; to truly know yourself, take real interest in the world.”
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.