Rudolf Steiner (27 February 1861 in the then Kingdom of Hungary, Austrian Empire, now Croatia – 30 March 1925 in Dornach, Switzerland) was an Austrian philosopher, social reformer, architect, and esotericist. He gained initial recognition as a literary critic and cultural philosopher. At the beginning of the 20th century, he founded a spiritual movement, Anthroposophy.
Steiner led this movement through several phases. In the first Steiner attempted to find a synthesis between science and theology; his philosophical work of these years, which he termed spiritual science, sought to provide a connection between the cognitive path of Western philosophy and the inner and spiritual needs of the human being. In a second phase, beginning around 1907, he began working collaboratively in a variety of artistic media, including drama, the movement arts (developing a new artistic form, eurythmy) and architecture, culminating in the building of a cultural centre to house all the arts, the Goetheanum. After the WWI, Steiner worked with educators, farmers, doctors, and other professionals to develop Waldorf education, biodynamic agriculture, anthroposophical medicine, as well as new directions in numerous other practical areas.
Steiner advocated a form of ethical individualism, to which he later brought a more explicitly spiritual component. He based his epistemology on Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s world view, in which “Thinking … is no more and no less an organ of perception than the eye or ear. Just as the eye perceives colors and the ear sounds, so thinking perceives ideas.” A consistent thread that runs from his earliest philosophical phase through his later spiritual orientation is the goal of demonstrating that there are no essential limits to human knowledge.
From 1879 to 1883, Steiner attended the Vienna Institute of Technology, where he studied mathematics, physics, and philosophy on an academic scholarship. In 1882, one of Steiner’s teachers, Karl Julius Schröer, suggested Steiner’s name to Joseph Kürschner, editor of a new Deutschen Nationalliteratur edition (‘German National Literature’) of Goethe’s works. Steiner was then asked to become the edition’s natural science editor.
In his autobiography, Steiner related that at 21, on the train between his home village and Vienna, he met a simple herb gatherer, Felix Kogutzki, who spoke about the spiritual world “as one who had his own experience therein…”. Kogutzki conveyed to Steiner a knowledge of nature that was non-academic and spiritual; soon thereafter Steiner began to read Goethe’s works on natural science.
In 1891, Steiner earned a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Rostock in Germany with a thesis based upon Fichte’s concept of the ego, later published in expanded form as Truth and Knowledge.
In 1888, as a result of his work for the Kürschner edition of Goethe’s works, Steiner was invited to work as an editor at the Goethe archives in Weimar. Steiner remained with the archive until 1896. As well as the introductions for and commentaries to four volumes of Goethe’s scientific writings, Steiner wrote two books about Goethe’s philosophy: The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe’s World-Conception (1886) and Goethe’s Conception of the World (1897). He also collaborated in completing editions of the works of Arthur Schopenhauer and the writer Jean Paul and wrote numerous articles for various journals.
During his time at the archives, Steiner wrote what he considered from that time forward (1894) to be his most important philosophical work, Die Philosophie der Freiheit (Philosophy of Freedom or The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity — Steiner’s preferred English title), an exploration of epistemology and ethics that suggested a path of self development upon which people can become spiritually free beings.
In 1899, Steiner published an article in his Magazin für Literatur, titled “Goethe’s Secret Revelation”, on the esoteric nature of Goethe’s fairy tale, The Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily. This article led to an invitation by the Count and Countess Brockdorff to speak to a gathering of Theosophists on the subject of Nietzsche. Steiner continued speaking regularly to the members of the Theosophical Society, becoming the head of its newly constituted German section in 1902 without ever formally joining the society. By 1904, Steiner was appointed by Annie Besant to be leader of the Theosophical Society’s Esoteric Section for Germany and Austria. It was within this society that Steiner met and worked with Marie von Sivers, who became his second wife in 1914.
The German Section of the Theosophical Society grew rapidly under Steiner’s leadership as he lectured throughout much of Europe on his spiritual science. During this period, Steiner maintained an original approach, replacing Madame Blavatsky’s terminology with his own, and basing his spiritual research and teachings upon the Western esoteric and philosophical tradition. This and other differences, in particular Steiner’s vocal rejection of Leadbeater and Besant’s claim that Jiddu Krishnamurti was the vehicle of a new Maitreya (world teacher), or the “Second Coming of Christ”, led to a formal split in 1912/13, when Steiner and the majority of members of the German section of the Theosophical Society broke off to form a new group, called the Anthroposophical Society.
Together with Marie Steiner-von Sivers, Rudolf Steiner developed the art of eurythmy—also referred to as “visible speech and visible song”. According to the principles of eurythmy, there are archetypal movements or gestures that correspond to every aspect of speech – the sounds (or phonemes), the rhythms, and the grammatical function – to every “soul quality” – joy, despair, tenderness, etc. – and to every aspect of music – tones, intervals, rhythms, and harmonies.
As a playwright, Steiner wrote four “Mystery Dramas” between 1909 and 1913, including The Portal of Initiation and The Soul’s Awakening. They are still performed today by Anthroposophical groups.
Steiner also founded a new approach to artistic speech, or “speech formation”, and drama. Michael Chekhov took up and extended Steiner’s approach in what is now known as the Chekhov Method of acting.
From the late 1910s, Steiner was working with doctors to create a new approach to medicine. In 1921, pharmacists and physicians gathered under Steiner’s guidance to create a pharmaceutical company called Weleda which now distributes natural medical products worldwide. At around the same time, Dr. Ita Wegman founded a first anthroposophic medical clinic in Arlesheim, Switzerland (now called the Wegman Clinic).
English sculptor Edith Maryon belonged to the innermost circle of founders of anthroposophy and headed the Section of Fine Arts at the Goetheanum. The Anthroposophical Society grew rapidly. Fueled by a need to find a home for their yearly conferences—which included performances of plays written by Eduard Schuré as well as Steiner himself—in 1913, construction began on the first Goetheanum, in Dornach, Switzerland. The building, designed by Steiner, was built to a significant part by volunteers who offered craftsmanship or simply a will to learn new skills. Despite the start of World War I in 1914, people from all over Europe worked peaceably side by side on the building’s construction.
Beginning in 1919, Steiner was called upon to assist with numerous practical activities, including the first Waldorf School, founded that year in Stuttgart, Germany. His lecture activity expanded enormously. At the same time, the Goetheanum developed as a wide-ranging cultural centre. On New Year’s Eve, 1922-23, the building burned to the ground; police reports indicate arson as the probable cause. Steiner immediately began work designing a second Goetheanum building, this time made of concrete instead of wood, which was completed in 1928, three years after his death.
Steiner became a well-known and controversial public figure during and after World War I. In response to the catastrophic situation in post-war Germany, he proposed extensive social reforms through the establishment of a Threefold Social System in which the cultural, political and economic realms would be largely independent of each others influence, as far as collusion. Steiner argued that a fusion of the three realms had created the inflexibility that had led to such catastrophes as World War I. In 1919, Steiner’s chief work on social reform (English title: Toward Social Renewal) was released simultaneously in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland and sold some 80,000 copies in the first year.
In the 1920s, Steiner was approached by Friedrich Rittelmeyer, a Lutheran pastor, who asked if it was possible to create a more modern approach for a ‘religious renewal’ of Christianity, which was waning at the time. Soon others joined Rittelmeyer—mostly Protestant pastors and theology students, but including several Roman Catholic priests. Steiner offered counsel on renewing the sacraments, combining Catholicism’s emphasis on the rites of a sacred tradition with the emphasis on freedom of thought and a personal relationship to religious life based on spiritual freedom.
Steiner made it clear, however, that the resulting movement for the ‘religious renewal’ of Christianity, which became known as “The Christian Community”, was a personal gesture of help to a movement founded by Rittelmeyer and others independently of the Anthroposophical Society. The distinction was important to Steiner because he sought with Anthroposophy to create a science of the spirit that people came to through their own conscious researches to spiritual understanding and not faith-based, spirituality. For those who wished to find more traditional forms, however, a renewal of the traditional religions was also a vital need of the times.
In 1923, Steiner founded a School of Spiritual Science, intended as an “organ of initiative” for research and study and as “the soul of the Anthroposophical Society”. This included a general course of study based on meditative exercises intended to guide a person from the spiritual in the human being to the spiritual in the universe, and specific departments, including education, medicine, agriculture, art, natural science, social science, and literature.
From 1923 on, he showed signs of increasing frailness and illness. He continued to lecture widely, and even to travel; especially towards the end of this time, he was often giving two, three or even four lectures daily for courses taking place concurrently. Many of these were for practical areas of life; simultaneously, however, Steiner began an extensive series of lectures presenting his research on the successive incarnations of various individualities, and on the technique of karma research generally.
In 1924, a group of farmers concerned about the future of agriculture requested Steiner’s help. Steiner responded with a lecture series on an ecological and sustainable approach to agriculture that increased soil fertility without the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Biodynamic agriculture is now practiced widely in Europe, North America, and Australasia.
Increasingly ill, his last lecture was held in September, 1924. He continued to write on his autobiography during the last months of his life; he died on 30 March 1925.
Throughout his life, Steiner consistently emphasized the core spiritual unity of all the world’s peoples and sharply criticized racial prejudice. He articulated beliefs that the individual nature of any person stands higher than any racial, ethnic, national or religious affiliation; that race and ethnicity are transient and superficial and not essential aspects of the individual; that each individual incarnates among and as part of many different peoples and races over successive lives, thus bearing within him- or herself a range of races and peoples; and that race is rapidly losing any remaining significance for humanity. Above all, Steiner considered “race, folk, ethnicity and gender” to be general, describable categories into which individuals may choose to fit, but from which free human beings can and will liberate themselves.