Rudolf Steiner

An Introduction to His Life and Thought

By Olin D. Wannamaker

The death of this Austrian thinker in the Swiss countryside near Basel, in March 1925, brought to an end a career of intense and varied intellectual and spiritual activities whose vital influence on contemporary culture was already manifest and seems obviously destined to permanent and profound significance. When a single individual, after spending years in the comprehensive study of philosophy and the sciences as well as literature and the arts, after having produced a number of volumes of a penetrating philosophical character and deeply spiritual import, applies his thought effectually to the creation of a new type of architecture, a new therapy engaging the active interest of numbers of highly trained medical men, radically new conceptions and methods in agriculture, fundamentally new and challenging ideas regarding the social order, and a school numbering a thousand pupils based upon an entirely novel departure from current pedagogy and attracting widespread favorable interest, such a person must embody unique human traits.

These tangible manifestations of the genius of Rudolf Steiner in the spheres of medicine, art, education, agriculture, and the social order become the more impressive when we trace them back to the soil out of which they grew — to his deeply spiritual philosophy. To state the elements of that philosophy at the beginning of this sketch seems almost to contradict the spirit of its originator; for Rudolf Steiner did not assume the role of a philosopher and a teacher of other men until he had reached the age of forty years and had brought to full maturity processes of thought which can be traced back all the way to his childhood. Nevertheless, it will clarify our conception of the man and will add to the interest of this brief sketch of his life and illuminate it in retrospect if we do here summarize briefly the fundamentals of his conception of the world and of man. Whatever may seem startling in this bald analysis of his thought will in turn be clarified when placed in its proper setting, which can be done only as we trace the genesis and evolution of his whole system of ideas. The open-minded reader, hospitable even to the most unexpected visitors from other minds, may at least be willing to entertain these ideas as transient guests until they shall either have established their right of residence or proven their incompatibility with the rest of his inner world of thought.

Since a brief analysis of Rudolf Steiner’s philosophy must give much attention to the spiritual point of emphasis as contrasted with what is ordinarily called the scientific approach to the problems of thought, our sketch will prove merely misleading if we do not preface it with a word of warning against assumptions that might easily be drawn from the analysis alone prior to a study of the thinker’s life. This word of warning would be that Rudolf Steiner did not promulgate any conception reached by him intuitively until it had been tested by years of scientific research and philosophic study. We would add that he was not a mystic in the usual sense of the world and that he was far from being a spiritualist. He convincingly repudiated mysticism as applied to his own processes of thought, and he earnestly warned his contemporaries against the perils involved for the human being in any method of approach to the super-sensible world requiring the use of mediums not in a state of full and clear consciousness. It was in utter clarity of thought that Rudolf Steiner arrived at the conception of man and of the world which characterizes him and out of which grew the remarkable experiences and achievements of his later life. This conception may be analyzed as follows.

Through intuitive perception confirmed at the bar of reason and research, this thinker “knew” the only real world to be the world of the spiritual. The sense-world, he affirmed with the assurance of one who sees, is only a manifestation of this world of the spirit. Nor is it the only manifestation. Within the human soul also, the spiritual world manifest itself — here in the form of the idea. Ideas are not mirrored mental images of objects in the external world; they are the attributes of concrete realities in the world of the spirit. Rudolf Steiner’s protracted inner struggle was for the purpose of bringing together these two forms of cognition — that by way of sense-perceptions and that which to him was independent of the senses, the direct perception of the spiritually real.

In the ordinary state of consciousness, to which the sense-world seems real and ultimate, man is living in illusion. But this illusion does not inhere in the nature of the physical world itself; it is only in man’s way of viewing this world.

Can we, then, escape from illusion and attain to reality? The answer is definite and assured. Just as the bodily organs have evolved as they were needed, so the soul of man will evolve organs of perception through which he will come to know what is spiritual and real, even as he now knows the phenomenal through the organs of the body. In this answer an evolutionary process is affirmed whose beginning antedates the appearance of the physical world. Man has descended from a purely spiritual existence into matter. The purpose of this descent has been the creation of individual self-consciousness. The descent has been a long-continued sequence of reincarnations. Each earthly life has constituted one stage in the evolution of each human individuality. As the powers of sense-perception and intellectual thinking have arisen and evolved, so have the faculties for direct perception of that which truly is reality ceased gradually to function.

But the time has now come when man must re-ascend from matter to the spirit, losing nothing he has gained from the earthly life, carrying with him all that he has attained through this long process of involution into matter, but also re-acquiring his direct perception of the spiritual world. Self-consciousness is now firmly established and does not need to be further intensified. The future stages of man’s evolution will consist in the reawakening of those powers whereby he shall again come to the normal, direct perception of reality, to free intercourse with the spiritual world, to which by nature he belongs. In this process the moral shall become the free choice of his own self-directing spirit.

Human beings of the present age differ widely among themselves. Some have no premonition of such capacities. Others have vague intimations, spiritual insights. Others are ready, by right means of discipline, to bring their higher faculties to wakeful and conscious activity. All such discipline, however, looking toward the unfoldment of those higher faculties of the soul, must also be so truly moral in its nature that the whole being of man shall be ennobled in the process of this discipline, and not only the faculties for the perception of truth. Indeed, truth remains hidden till the soul is morally crystalline.

It may be added that those who were most intimately associated with this Austrian philosopher found in him, not only the fruit of this evolution of the powers of human thought, but also the elevation and nobility of character which it was his constant endeavor to aid his fellow men in developing. The personality and life of Rudolf Steiner were an achievement and a work of art commensurate with the remarkable accomplishments resulting from his varied external activities and the quality and scope of his thought.

Born in 1861, the first of three children of a railway station agent at a little village on the border between Hungary and Croatia, Rudolf Steiner would not seem to the student of heredity or eugenics to have derived his being from this simple, slightly educated, good natured but disputatious father or his toiling, quiet mother — both belonging in heart and mind to the South-Austrian forest country north of the Danube, where the railway has not even yet penetrated to the father’s birthplace. After a brief removal to Mödling, near Vienna, the parents took their year-old infant to the little village of Pottschach, in lower Austria, near the Styrian border, where he lived to his eighth year under the combined or conflicting influences of a little village, with its heart at the railway station, and a wonderful landscape of green valley and magnificent mountains.

Villagers, peasants, forests, a mineral spring, a grain mill and a yarn factory; the railway — always fascinating in its mechanical mystery but always swallowed up in the distance by the illimitable mystery of Nature; a dull village school for a time at six years and then instruction by the railway-agent father, copying pages and sprinkling sand on them to watch the physics of absorption, or prying open the nib of the goose-quill pen to test its elasticity; the arrival in due time of a small brother and sister; daily chores, his was a very ordinary life of childhood. The removal in his eighth year to Neudörfl, a little Hungarian village, only gave the child a wider sweep of plain to view and more distant mountains, a slightly better village school till the age of eleven years, and within walking distance the larger town of Wiener-Neustadt, where he went at this age by train each day in order to attend the scientific high school chosen for him by his father, and returned home in the evening afoot, often through an hour of snow. The child’s origin, environment, daily life, up to his eighteenth year, when his father was transferred to a barren little village near Vienna, were indistinguishable from those of the multitude.

Externally it was thus. Within the boy, however, there was nothing commonplace; his inner world was quite unknown to those about him. Not even his mother — devoted and absorbed in the well-being of her little household — seems to have had any inkling of what was at play behind her boy’s exterior pursuits and activities. And how are we to explain what really lived within him? Perhaps, words of his own may be found.

At eight years he saw on his teacher’s desk a text-book in geometry, was caught by something in its pages, borrowed it, buried his eight-year-old head in it for weeks, lost to the world without and at home in the world within, finding the deepest satisfaction in knowing “that one can live within the soul in the shaping of forms perceived only in oneself, entirely without impression upon the external senses,” experiencing an inner joy at being able “to lay hold upon something in the spirit alone.”

Was he a child mystic? In a certain way of speaking, he was; “for the reality of the spiritual world,” he says, “was to me as certain as that of the physical.” “I loved to live in that world. For I should have been forced to feel the physical world as a sort of spiritual darkness around me, had it not received light from that side.” He had come to distinguish before his eighth year between the world “that is seen” and that “which is not seen.”

Rudolf Steiner

Yet the term mystic does not satisfy our needs here. This eight-year-old boy was aware of something behind the veil of human existence, but he was not content merely to be aware. He struggled constantly to confirm this awareness as an experience of reality. Even at this childish epoch in evolving powers, he was searching on all sides for some means of justifying his inner vision before the bar of reason and in the light of external perception. Thus it was that geometry gave to him such strange inner satisfaction. He said to himself: “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.” In mature years he affirmed with the serene certitude of one who had tested himself by profound, comprehensive, and protracted study, by inner examination, sifting, and discipline: “I saw a spiritual world in this soul arena. … For the reality of the spiritual world was as certain as that of the physical. I felt a need, however, for a sort of justification of this assumption. I wished to be able to say to myself that the experience of the spiritual world is just as little an illusion as is that of the physical world.”

We shall see that this struggle to confirm an inner and definite perception of the invisible reality constituted the impelling motive of years of intense intellectual application and toil, taking the seeker through the realms of science, philosophy, literature, and art, to the age of forty years, when for the first time he felt justified in offering to men the inner world of his perception, clarified and confirmed by a mastery of all that science and philosophy have to contribute to the innermost need of the human soul.

The story of these years is one of a strange contradiction between coexisting society and solitude. The early pages of his own story of his life are vivid with pen sketches of persons who touched him at all sorts of angles. In all these sketches one senses a certain poignancy of human feeling which always marked him. He entered into the inner lives of all sorts of persons, warmly sharing in their interests and reactions to the world. The numbers of such persons multiply as we move from childhood through youth to mature life. Each pen-sketch is a miniature work of art, warm with an artist’s sympathetic appreciation of his subject and yet warmer with a wise man’s comprehending and comprehensive patience and insight. These persons range from the peasant gathering firewood to Eduard von Hartmann, philosopher of the unconscious; and the receptivity and understanding in the presence of the two extremes appear to be equal and adequate.

But the loneliness was almost complete from the other point of view. At eight years he had learned to be silent about his inner questions. When he met in country walks monks of the Order of the Most Holy Redeemer, he would have been very happy if they had spoken to him instead of passing in silence. He decided in his ninth year that there ‘must be weighty matters in connection with the duties of these monks which he ought to learn to understand,’ but no one assisted him. He was a devoted little chorister and worshipper at the village church, but no one knew that, far more than the instruction in religion given by the priest to the school children, did the music and liturgy of the service carry him out of time and space. “The solemnity of the Latin language of the liturgy was a thing in which my boyish soul found a vital happiness … The contemplation of the church service in close connection with the solemnity of the liturgical music causes the riddle of existence to rise in powerful suggestive fashion before the mind.” The boy, as described by the man, passed his life in his home environment without sharing in it. He perceived it, but his real thought and feeling were in that other world. Yet he did his share of the family chores alertly, and learned to bind his own books, while mastering out of school hours half a dozen additional subjects of study. He applied himself intensely to almost every element of the school course.

Such also were his outer and inner life at a later stage, when he had become a student in the Technological Institute in Vienna, and during the prolonged period of study and research from his eighteenth to his twenty-ninth year. He thus describes his relationship to many intimate friends during this period: “In opinions I seldom agreed with these friends. This, however, did not mean at all that there was not an inwardness and mutual stimulation in these friendships.” Yet they forced him into a sort of double mental life. “The struggle with the riddle of cognition, which then filled my mind more than all else, aroused in my friends always, to be sure, a strong interest but very little active participation. Through the experience of this riddle I was always rather lonely. On the other hand, I myself always shared completely in whatever arose in the existence of my friends. Thus there flowed along in me two parallel currents of life: one which I as a lone wanderer followed, the other which I shared in vital companionship with men bound to me by ties of affection.”

Later, when engaged in editing the scientific writings of Goethe in Weimar, from 1890 to 1897, the same double life was still required of him. This part of his account of his life is thronged by human beings of all sorts. The extremes of Weimar — the classic past of the Goethe Museum, the art school, the theatre, and the critical present and oncoming future — met in the hospitable mind and all-inclusive sympathy of this one person. In the midst of a varied array of brief pen sketches of men and women and mental attitudes, one finds this indication of that strange combination of aloofness and intimate comprehension which marked this thinker: “The philosophic tendencies of a succession of men revealed themselves to my mind during my Weimar days. For, in the case of each person with whom it was possible to converse about questions of the world and of life, such conversations developed in the intimate relationships of that time. And many persons interested in such discussions came through Weimar. …

“I had to enter into them, into their way of thinking and emotional inclinations; they by no means entered into that which 1 had inwardly experienced and was still experiencing. I entered with a vital intensity into what others experienced and thought; but I could not cause my own inner spiritual activity to flow into this world of experience. In my own being I had always to remain behind within myself. Indeed, my own world was separated, as if by a thin partition, from all the outer world. … I was in the most vital intercourse with others, but in every instance I had to pass from my world as if through a door in order to engage in this intercourse. … Yet this did not hinder me from giving myself up to the most vital participation with one whom I was thus visiting; indeed, I felt entirely at home while on such a visit.

“Thus it was with persons, and thus also with world conceptions. … I perceived the most varied world views — the scientific, the idealistic, and many shades of each. I felt the impulse to enter into these, to move about in them; but into my spiritual world they cast no light. To me they were phenomena confronting me, not realities in which I could have lived. … I realized their relative correctness. With my attitude of mind, I could never so deal with them as to say: `This is right, that is wrong.’ In that case I should have felt what was vital in them as something alien to me. But I found one no more alien than the others; for I felt at home only in the spiritual world of my perception, and I could feel as if at home in any other.

“The various intellectual standpoints repudiate one another; spiritual vision sees them merely as standpoints. Seen from each of these, the world appears differently. It is as if one should photograph a house from various sides. The pictures are different; the house is the same. … If one stands really within the spiritual world, one allows for the correctness of a point of view.”

That this all-inclusive sympathy and comprehension do not represent the reaction of a merely facile mind, reflecting the color of each thought held before its surface, is obvious from the duration and intensity of Rudolf Steiner’s absorption in thought before he completed the fabric of his own world-conception. We have seen his wide range of curiosity as a schoolboy and his ability to master the material with which the curiosity concerned itself. So it was during the eleven years at Vienna. Interested primarily in the riddle of knowledge — the riddle of the human mind in cognition, of the human soul relating itself to truth — he did not content himself with a survey of the history of philosophy and an intensive study of the philosophers, but was as deeply concerned with science.

Philosophy was, perhaps, his first interest. At the age of thirteen years, while a student in the high school in Wiener-Neustadt, he had seen the title The Critique of Pure Reason advertised in the show-window of a bookshop and had carefully saved his small coin to purchase the book bearing this intriguing title. He knew at that time nothing of Kant. He plunged with boyish enthusiasm and pious devotion into the profundities of the abstruse philosopher. Parts of this book he read “many more than twenty times” at this age of thirteen years. The first journey that he made into Vienna, after the family had moved near to the city in his eighteenth year, was for the purpose of procuring a larger number of philosophical books. He worked his way through the whole of German philosophy. The writings of later years indicate the depth to which he went in this study. Because of having passed through a technical high school instead of a classical Gymnasium, he was enrolled for his advanced studies in the Technische Hochschule in Vienna instead of the University, but he took advantage of the liberal arrangements whereby he might attend lectures at the University, and there he sat under the most distinguished of the lecturers in philosophy and read almost everything available from all sources.

But, we must repeat, he entered with equal enthusiasm into the scientific courses. He studied for two years in physics under Reitlinger. He made his own experiments in order to confirm his inner rejection of prevalent scientific theories as an adequate explanation of sound and of light. The evidence seems to show that he was a student of quite exceptional keenness in a great variety of subject-matter. Among the students whom he aided as tutor there were men preparing for the examinations for the degree of doctor of philosophy in the sciences. He was in close and intimate relationship with a number of his teachers in various branches, and expresses his gratitude for the way in which scholars met him more than half-way when he pursued his researches all the way to the doors of the medical school in Vienna.

His most intimate friend among the professors was Karl Julius Schröer, well known as a devoted and competent scholar in German literature. This teacher introduced him to Goethe.

It proved to be a momentous introduction. The younger student became a great lover of Faust. He went beyond his teacher, however, in another aspect of Goethe, with which Schröer was not familiar, — the scientific ideas of the great poet. Finding himself in inner collision with much that prevailed in the Darwinian theory and in the mechanistic conception of the universe then dominant, he discovered in Goethe the investigator whose manner of thought satisfied his own imperative demands. This led him to a close study of all obtainable scientific writings of the poet. He was invited at the age of twenty-two years to edit all these scientific writings for a great collective work of German literature. For ten years he spent much of his time laboring at this task, though pursuing his studies and investigations otherwise also; and he became convinced that Goethe’s way of viewing Nature in general, very different from the scientific methods prevailing, was a more vital way and one leading more directly to reality. As a basis for a thorough comprehension of Goethe’s thought, he undertook to set forth a theory of cognition implicit in Goethe’s way of thinking, before editing the poet’s scientific writings. He was then only twenty-two years old. He had found in Goethe a thinker who approached the world from the side of sense-perceptions but with such a mood of soul that he attained to a grasp of the “sensible-supersensible” manifest in organic life. By way of Goethe he might later bring his own vivid and penetrant perception of that which stands behind the visible — that which clothes itself for man’s senses in the visible — to a form of statement realizable by other human minds.

The impression created by this editorial work led to his being invited to join the group of distinguished specialists engaged at the Goethe Museum in Weimar in editing the definitive edition of all the works of Goethe. He was to edit and interpret a large part of the scientific legacy of the poet. Here he spent the years 1890–1897, from his twenty-ninth to his thirty-sixth year. With the utmost conscientiousness he endeavored to edit Goethe’s writings and to introduce and interpret these without interposing his own views between Goethe and the reader. He had become more than ever convinced that Goethe’s way of thinking of the world and man pointed out the main highway for future thought, and that much of the mechanistic conception of the universe characteristic of such writers as Darwin and Haeckel marked a by-way leading to a blank wall. He recognized in full measure, however, the factual content and the stimulation of their work.

Just here, however, we are not interested in setting forth Rudolf Steiner’s own conception of the world. We are interested primarily in the man and in his intensive preparations for his task. We have said that his hospitality to ideas was by no means that of a merely facile mind, reflecting every idea held before its surface. It is equally important that we shall not make the mistake of supposing that his references to “standing within” the spiritual world and viewing all sorts of philosophical conceptions as merely different points of view mark him at this age as a mystic. He was not a mere mystic in childhood and he was far from being a mere mystic as a mature thinker. With all his capacity for understanding the warmth and intimacy of the mystic temper and mood, he definitely rejected this path as leading, not to reality or knowledge, but to subjective emotions only and ignorance of the objectively real. “The mystic seemed to me,” he says, “to be a man who failed to come into right relation with the world of ideas, in which for me the spiritual has its existence. … The ordinary mystic is of the same opinion as the materialist as regards human ideal knowledge. He maintains that ideas -do not extend to the spiritual, and that in ideal knowledge man must always remain outside the spiritual. Since, however, he desires to attain to the spirit, he turns to an inner experience void of ideas. … I often said to myself, `How these mystics fail to understand the warmth, the mental intimacy which one experiences when one lives in association with ideas permeated by the spiritual.’ To me this living association has always been like a personal intercourse with the spiritual world.”

The inner experience after which the mystic strives, living contact with the fountain-head of human existence, was identical with that for which this thinker was seeking, but the way of the mystic was not his way. It was clear to him that “one arrives at the same kind of experience when one sinks down into the depths of the soul accompanied by the full and clear content of the ideal world, instead of slipping off this content when thus sinking into one’s depths. I desired to carry the light of the ideal world into the warmth of the inner experience.” “If any one enters into the interior of his own soul without taking ideas with him, he arrives at the inner region of mere feeling.” He asserted that there is a vital distinction between the mystic way and the way of the spirit-illuminated ideas. By the latter method, “man surrenders himself, and the external spiritual world comes to objective spiritual manifestation, whereas the mystic strengthens his own inner life, and in this way effaces the true form of the objectively real.”

Before going on to sketch lightly the latter half of Rudolf Steiner’s life, we need once more to dwell upon the extraordinary breadth of his interest and his human sympathy, for these traits of the personality are woven into the fabric of his world-conception.

During the eleven years of his study in Vienna, he had been deeply interested in art, especially in literature and music. His intimate friend and teacher, Schröer, the gifted and inspiring lecturer on German literature, introduced him not only to Goethe but also to the primitive folk-dramas which Schröer had found among the German colonists in various parts of Hungary and had collected and published. The two minds were unusually congenial in emotional reactions to art. These primitive plays made a deep impression upon Rudolf Steiner, which bore fruit later in significant contributions to literature. But the younger man, though always deeply grateful to his teacher, extended his interests far more widely in literature as well as in science. When Schröer was shocked and offended by the bald atheism of the brilliant young poet Eugenie Belle Grazie, the youthful Steiner was fascinated by her genius and impressed by her sincerity. He could praise her remarkable poetic compositions and share to the full in the fascinating Saturday evening assemblages of brilliant persons at her home, while at the same time maintaining an attitude toward Goethe’s place in the evolution of art and thought diametrically opposed to that maintained by her and her distinguished coterie of scholar friends, and also while analyzing and refuting her and their pessimism and materialism in a privately circulated pamphlet, Nature and Our Ideals.

While he was in Vienna the long continued battle around Wagner was at its height. Deeply sensitive to pure music, the young student was not swept off his feet by the exaggerated claims then made for the tremendous genius. References in later lectures indicate a profound realization of the great significance of Wagner in the evolution of art, yet Rudolf Steiner never ceased to find an even greater depth and reality in pure music. This was in line with his conception of fundamental reality in general. Just as thought — the idea — was to him the manifestation in the human soul of that which is objectively real in the spiritual world, tone likewise was such a manifestation. This essential element in the conception of the originator of so much that is germinal and fructifying in various fields of inner and outer life cannot, of course, be discussed within the limits of this brief sketch.

Rudolf Steiner

The seven years spent at Weimar were devoted principally to the task of editing the scientific writings and unpublished notes of Goethe. This constituted a stage in the evolution of his own philosophy. Not, however, in the sense that Goethe solved for him the riddles with which he had been occupied since childhood. To suppose this would be to misinterpret the relationship between the two minds. What the younger thinker had been seeking was not a vision of reality. That perception he possessed in constantly growing richness and depth. Of the authenticity of the inner revelation of his own soul he was profoundly convinced; there was a certitude in this inner testimony more satisfying than that supposed to inhere in the outer testimony of eye and ear to the objectivity of the physical world. He had been seeking for a bridge between this inner world and the outer, between what he saw in the soul-arena and that which plays its role before the physical senses — a bridge over which he might hope to lead other minds from the outer to the inner. Goethe, in a manner, gave to him such a bridge between the two worlds. In Goethe he found a thinker whose mode of cognition in the presence of the living world was wholly unlike the mode characterizing the mechanistic theorizing of nineteenth-century science. He considered Goethe as a sort of Galileo. The latter had placed mechanics on right foundation principles; the former did this service to organics, the science of organic life. Rudolf Steiner believed that future developments would show nineteenth-century science had taken a false lead in applying to the living being the same methods of research, the same intellectual, mathematical mode of thinking, which had led to such great achievements in the sphere of the inorganic, of the lifeless. It was in this application that prevalent scientific thought was inadequate.

Toward the end of this period spent at Weimar, about his .thirty-sixth year, he may be said to have brought to final form the results of all the previous years of searching after fundamental truths with regard to man as a spirit in a body — the bond between perception and inner vision.

This summation of his thought appears in his Philosophic der Freiheit, translated into English under the title The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity.

This work, in an important sense, undertakes to refute Kant’s theory of the limitation of human knowledge. For the indefatigable thirteen-year-old student of the Critique of Pure Reason had failed to find in that volume, even after repeated reverent re-readings, that solution of the riddle of life which its title had seemed to promise. Gradually, as he came to youthful self-confidence, he had decided that the light promised was not to shine. He passed on from Kant to Fichte, Schelling, Hegel and many others, discovering in each of them one of those standpoints to which we have referred. His reverent understanding of the spiritual labors of these great figures in the history of thought appears in later writings of his own, but he followed a different way, and in The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity we have the summation of his reasoning in philosophic form about the human soul in relation to truth, — not, however, the summation of his own contribution to man’s heritage of truth. Rather the conclusion of a preparatory phase in his spiritual life.

The prevailing philosophy of the period considered that reality must remain always beyond human consciousness; that man can merely form by logical inferences hypothetical conceptions regarding this reality. The external world is beyond man’s capacity to know; he knows only subjective impressions, produced within him through his senses. The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity undertook to show, says its author in his autobiography, that “no unknown lies beyond the sense-world, but that within it lies the spiritual. And concerning the world of human ideas I sought to show that these have their existence in that spiritual world. Therefore the reality of the world of the senses is hidden from human consciousness only so long as the soul perceives by the senses alone. When, in addition to sense-perceptions, ideas also are experienced, then the sense-world in its objective reality is embraced within consciousness. Knowing does not consist in a copying of the real, but in the soul’s living entrance into that real. Within consciousness occurs that advance from the still unreal sense-world to the reality of this world. … The goal of the process of consciousness is the conscious experience of the spiritual world, in the visible presence of which everything is resolved into spirit. … I desired to show how in that which is subjectively experienced the objectively real shines and becomes the true content of consciousness. … I saw at the center of the soul’s life its complete union with the spiritual world.

“In pointing out that the sense-world is in reality a world of spiritual being and that man, as a soul, by means of true knowledge of the sense-world is weaving and living in a world of spirit — herein lies the first objective of my Philosophy of Spiritual Activity. In characterizing the moral world as one whose being shines into the world of spirit experienced by the soul and thereby enables man to arrive at this moral world freely — herein lies the second objective.”

The culmination, we have said, of what may be called the formative purely philosophic phase of Rudolf Steiner’s life is reached in this work. Other books of great significance which he wrote later are also philosophic in content and mode of presentation but they are outgrowths or application of the philosophy here formulated. Once having established, however, through his own observation and pure reasoning and especially in his interpretation of Goethe, a philosophy of thought — a conception of the interplay between the physical instrument of the body, the indwelling human being as spirit, and the environing world of spirit — he went on in the development of his own powers and capacities in this process of thought and added a tremendous array of information thus acquired concerning the profoundest problems of human life.

In order to bring this life-sketch into relationship with the practical applications to which Rudolf Steiner reduced his philosophy in the fields of education, art, science, and medicine, it will be necessary to shift from the chronological, or genetic, study of the evolution of his thought to a statement of its main content of ideas when the evolution was complete. It is from this thought-content, from the thinker’s conception of the world and of man, that his revolutionary and vitalizing activities took form. For our present purpose, it will suffice to round out the sketch by saying that, after the completion of his seven years at Weimar, he became editor of the Magazin für Literatur, Berlin, in 1897, with the purpose of preparing the way for setting before the world at the right moment his profoundly spiritual philosophy, embracing as it did an adequate understanding of Darwinism, of Haeckel’s further extension of Darwin’s work, of Nietzsche and other significant figures of the age, but extending in depth far below the phenomenal world upon which science rightly spends its efforts, and seeing with clarity where ‘Nietzsche saw only cloudlike symbols and shadows of the real. After feeling his way for some years through the columns of this magazine, he began, after the turn of the century, to lecture to specially interested groups on his own experiences and thought. Finding in the Theosophists — with whom he had never been in any way connected — the sole body of men and women desirous of pursuing a spiritual way of knowledge, he accepted the invitation to become the Secretary of the German section of this society. The invitation to assume this official leadership of the German Theosophists came as a result of the impression created by lectures delivered by Dr. Steiner before there was any such connection. These lectures were later published in two volumes entitled The Mystics of the Renaissance and Christianity as Mystical Fact. The invitation was accepted in the light of the character of thought marking these lectures and with the explicit understanding that the new responsibility should not in the least modify the independence of one who had from childhood pursued an entirely free and original course of thought. The step was taken because the thinker had reached the stage of inner necessity where he must endeavor to transplant into the soul of humanity what had matured in his own soul. The unsought invitation opened the only visible access to the receptive element of his generation.

By means of lectures and publications, he added greatly to the membership in the Society, while vitalizing and transforming the content of its intellectual and spiritual life. New and living growth began at once to appear within the organism. This new growth seemed likely to metamorphose the whole being of the Society. But in 1907 it became necessary for Dr. Steiner to take sharp issue against the idea promulgated by the responsible; leaders of the General Society that Christ was to be re-incarnated in a Hindu youth. His connection with the Society came to an end. The new growth transplanted itself and took on its independent organic existence as the Anthroposophical Society, from that time on fostered and inspired by him.

Dr. Steiner had from the beginning used the term theosophy, not in the restricted sense of its application to the Theosophical Society, but in its ancient sublime meaning of divine wisdom, knowledge above the level of the sensible, revealing to man his true being. Hence the title of the fundamental book Theosophy was in no need of alteration. But he had also employed from the beginning the companion term anthroposophy, so that this term could henceforth replace the older term without confusion.

It is not easy to speak with becoming reserve regarding Rudolf Steiner’s personal attitude toward what he always calls the Mystery of Golgotha and his interpretation of this climax and culmination of all the Mysteries. In his spirit there was all the adoration toward the ineffable Being who once became incarnate that we find in the greatest mystics, but even in the face of this event in cosmic evolution Rudolf Steiner did not rest either in passive perplexity or mere worshipping receptiveness. His spirit battled with this as with other problems, and in one of the most impressive chapters of his life-story he tells us, with becoming reserve: “The evolution of my soul rested upon the fact that I stood before the Mystery of Golgotha in most inward, most earnest joy of knowledge.”

Rudolf Steiner died in March 1925. Before his death he had given radically new impulses to the evolution of humanity, not merely in philosophy, but in the arts as well and in the spheres of medicine, education, agriculture, and the conception of the whole social order. Those who sponsor any of these ideas are the more deeply convinced of their vitality and validity because of the fact that they are but one form of flowering of a strangely comprehensive genius.

Let us revert now to a presentation of the distinctive elements in the philosophy of this thinker, with which we began, in order that we may observe the genesis of his educational and other applied teachings out of this philosophy. We trust the hasty sketch of his life may have prepared the reader to consider the unusual character of much of his thought as the product, not of subjective mysticism, nor of a mere absorption of ancient Oriental wisdom, but of brilliant and profound yet also patient and long protracted reflection and meditation confirmed at the bar of a trained and mature scientific and logical reason. It is because we are fully convinced of this character of his thinking that we desire to see it given widespread currency and adequate study in America.

It is already obvious that to this thinker the real world is a world of spirit. But this conviction was neither a belief nor an assumption, nor was it only a reasoned conclusion. It was a gift of inner experience. His struggle through decades of intellectual labor was not for the purpose of arriving at a conclusion concerning the reality manifested but also concealed by our sense-impressions. It was to bring two forms of cognition together — that by way of the senses and that which is independent of the senses — in order to present his spiritual perceptions to other minds in a form congenial to their mode of approach to truth.

It is important, however, not to make the radical mistake at this point of adjudging this first single element in the analysis of his world-conception and then accepting or rejecting the whole fabric according as we may react at this stage. Let us take what we may call, if we so choose, Rudolf Steiner’s postulates, though he would never have called them by a name implying purely logical and inferential reasoning, and simply let them lie in our minds like seed in the soil. If, when all these germinal ideas are planted within the mind, we do not discover that there is a vitality in them, that they spring into life and growth, then we cannot do otherwise than go our own way without any help from them. To reject one of the ideas before we have hospitably entertained them all together is to render impossible any reasonable consideration of a world-conception which, to many thoughtful persons, is proving to be in extraordinary measure stimulating and satisfying, and also capable of producing concrete results in varied fields of application.

The spiritual world is the real world. The sense-world is only one of its manifestations, not its only manifestation. Within the human soul also does the spiritual world manifest itself. Here its manifestation is in the form of the idea. Just as color appertains to objects in the physical world — for Dr. Steiner rejected the wave theory as a real and adequate explanation of light and color — so do ideas appertain to concrete realities in the super-sensible world. Ideas are not mere mirrored mental images of objects in the physical world; they are the attributes of existences in the spiritual world.

In the ordinary state of consciousness man faces a world of illusion. But this does not mean that the physical world is in its real nature an illusion. It means that man takes it for what it is not. The illusion is in man’s way of seeing the world.

How, then, is man ever to escape from illusion and attain to truth? To answer this question we must introduce a new element in this general conception of the world and of man. That man should see the world deceptively — should make an illusion of what is spiritual and real — becomes quite explicable when we take the standpoint of one who believes in repeated lives on earth as the mode of evolution of the human individuality. This conception is basic in the philosophy of Rudolf Steiner. The reader may, at least, imagine this state of things in order to follow further and estimate the chain of ideas as a unity. With Rudolf Steiner the conception was a perception and not the result of ratiocination. Put briefly, reincarnation is the mode whereby each human individuality accompanies the evolution of culture and of the race, sharing in this vast process both as agent and as object, as cause and as effect. Spiritual in essence, man has descended out of the world of spirit by stages, of which each incarnation is a single step. Beginning as spirit with spiritual capacities, he has with immeasurable slowness metamorphosed these purely spiritual capacities into those whereby he perceives indirectly, using as instrument of cognition the organs of a physical body, which have been developed in the course of the evolution of this body.

This descent into matter has had as its goal the evolution of self-consciousness, which did not exist when man was pure spirit, and which has only gradually evolved, coming to its maximum clarity and intensity only in the epoch since the fifteenth century. The capacity to think by the instrumentality of the nervous system is closely bound up with individual self-consciousness.

This purely logical process of thought, dependent upon nerves and brain, tends at the present stage in human evolution to go to an extreme which endangers man’s real being as spirit. Self-consciousness is firmly established. There is no need for intensifying the sense of the single ego. Rather, with the clear light of the self-conscious individuality, man should now seek to recover powers which, in the long process of evolution, he has temporarily had to sacrifice — powers which have gradually fallen asleep during the centuries, but which are not annulled, which can be awakened. The further stages of his evolution will consist in the awakening of these powers, whereby he shall again come to the normal direct perception of reality, to free intercourse with the spiritual world, to which by nature he belongs, wherein the moral becomes the free choice of his own self-directing spirit.

There is no space at this point to explain the irreconcilable conflict between the mode of perception here intended and that mode of approach to spiritual reality represented by spiritualism. Sharp as is the contrast between the subjective passivity and loss of self-direction represented by mysticism on the one hand and heightening of the powers and form of thought and the crystal clarity of ideas represented by Rudolf Steiner on the other, the conflict between his way to truth and that of spiritualism is immeasurably sharper. With the utmost earnestness did he repeatedly give the warning that any mode of access into the supersensible realm other than that in which one maintains self-consciousness inviolate and is the master of oneself is a peril to body, mind, and spirit. Recognizing with due appreciation that craving for access to the spiritual world which explains the spread of spiritualism, and acknowledging that truths concerning an invisible world do come to light through this method, though in confused and untrustworthy form, his reverence for the human individuality and his utter certitude of the openness of the spiritual world on higher levels of approach — levels to which each soul must rise through the discipline and the culture of its own native and nascent powers — laid upon him the duty of warning against the evils resulting from the wrong way of seeking light.

It has been evident throughout to the reader that this thinker — if we are to accept his own conviction maintained through a lifetime and intensifying with its maturity — possessed that inner vision of the world of spirit which he taught that man must now seek to recover. He asserted that a stage in human evolution has now been reached in which the dormant — now renascent — powers, or organs, of the soul for the direct cognition of the spirit must be awakened, fostered into active functioning. Just as the organs of the body have evolved as they became necessary, so will the organs of the soul. The men of this age differ widely among themselves. Some have no inkling of such a possibility. Others have vague intimations, spiritual insights. Others are ready, by right means of discipline to bring their higher faculties to wakeful and conscious activity. The forms of self-discipline taught by Rudolf Steiner were so sane and ennobling that every human being would profit by their practice. They are methods of self-culture which purify the moral being, clarify the mind, intensify the powers of concentrated thought, strengthen the memory, deepen the feeling for beauty in every form, broaden and enrich the sympathies, strengthen the capacity of judgment, and rid the soul of low desires and craven fear. One who reads with open mind Knowledge of the Higher World and Its Attainment, and who knows enough of the life of the author to credit him with sincerity, may conceivably deny the possibility of attaining the goal to which he points, but cannot fail to feel the elevation and nobility of his spirit.

The sponsors of this journal, however, believe in the reality of those powers ascribed by Rudolf Steiner to humanity. We are convinced that he possessed these powers already mature and functioning. We have, therefore, a very special sense of the importance of what this thinker has said about the human being in his three-fold organism, of body, soul, and spirit; about the unfolding of this human being by well-defined stages in the child;, of the methods whereby this unfolding is hindered and thwarted and those whereby it is facilitated and furthered. It is our purpose to set before American parents and teachers as widely as is possible that which we consider the wisest and profoundest educational philosophy of the present age.

So much for the elements of Rudolf Steiner’s conception of the world and of man. In order to understand, however, his remarkable tangible achievements in the sphere of art, medicine, and education, we must revert for a moment to the sketch of his life. There we shall find the actual beginning of things which reach their development only in his last years. First, with regard to educational work, it is necessary to note that, from the age of fifteen years until he had completed his research work and finally left Vienna for Weimar at the age of thirty years, he was a teacher. Not only did he find his livelihood during these years of study through teaching others, but he developed through his experience fundamental and quite radical ideas in regard to pedagogy. His experience as a tutor ranged all the way from the direction and assistance he was requested as a boy of fifteen years to give to his classmates and other pupils in German composition up to the private tutoring of students in the University of Vienna during their preparation for the final examinations for the degree of doctor of philosophy. The range of subjects he covered in this way was very broad. The degree to which he developed an insight into the human being and an art in instruction was most manifest in the case of an abnormal boy for whom he was responsible during a period of several years, and whom he led from a hopeless condition, which was the despair of his parents, to the complete mastery of his congenital deficiencies. The vivid and challenging thought that we find in the many lectures delivered later by Dr. Steiner on educational themes was born out of an inner experience constantly deepening and enriching, but was also developed through years of outer application.

So also did his radical deliverances on the subjects of music, painting, and architecture result from an unusually varied study, observation, meditation and contact with great numbers of persons doing significant things in these fields. His close attention to music and other arts in Vienna was continued during the seven years in Weimar, where he came into contact with many musicians, painters, and other artists and shared their life in intimate fashion. Here also his interest in the drama received a new stimulus. During his years in Berlin, his editorial work was supplemented by active participation in the production of unusual dramatic works. In these productions he shared jointly with one other person in stage management. During these years also he was thinking vitally and creatively in regard to the art of speech. The dramatic school now flourishing at The Goetheanum, Dornach, Switzerland, the unusually vital and inspiring work that is being done there now in the art of speech and the beautiful programs given constantly throughout the year in that new art form created by Rudolf Steiner — Eurythmy — are all to be traced back to germinal beginnings in his earlier life. No one will completely understand these things who does not follow them back to their beginning in the life of their originator. So it is likewise with his original ideas regarding the social order. We find the beginnings of these at an early period in his life, though they manifest themselves much more strikingly during his Berlin years, when he was deeply interested in the education of the workers, and most of all during the chaos of post-war Europe.

None of these external applications can be separated from the thought and life of Rudolf Steiner. They are all vital and inevitable outgrowths of his own inner being. Their reality is the reality of his thought. Their elevation and nobility are the elevation and nobility of this unusual man. It is with a sense of grateful appreciation that we would introduce other Americans to the thought of Dr. Steiner. One who reads his books and cycles of lectures must feel that each problem with which he dealt, from art to economics, was at the very moment of his public utterances irradiated in his mind and soul with the light of inner certitude. His latest affirmations before his death at the age of sixty-three years, on March 30, 1925, possess all the freshness and vitality of the affirmations of his gifted youth and, added to these qualities, a profundity which evokes in the receptive reader a feeding deeper than ordinary admiration and grateful respect.

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Source: RSArchive