The most enigmatic figure to emerge from the 'occult revival' of the early 20th century was also the most successful: the Austrian 'spiritual scientist' Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925). Although many of his contemporaries and near-contemporaries were outwardly more eccentric – think of Madame Blavatsky, the founder of Theosophy, or of the inimitable GI Gurdjieff, or the scandalous 'magician' Aleister Crowley – it's precisely Steiner's sobriety that is so striking, even making him seem out of place in the often flamboyant world of the esoteric.
We generally associate ideas of the occult, higher consciousness and spiritual worlds with exotic, extraordinary characters with something of the trickster about them; Blavatsky, Gurdjieff and Crowley would certainly fall into this category. Steiner, though, was precisely the opposite. Standing at the lectern with his pince-nez in hand, he projected an image of irreproachable rectitude. Steiner was earnestness incarnate, his one gesture of bohemian extravagance the flowing bow ties he was fond of wearing, a remnant of his early student days. Where Blavatsky, Gurdjieff and Crowley each took pains to present a formidable self-image, there was something simple and peasant-like about Steiner. Combined with this wholesomeness was an encyclopædic erudition; if we were to use an 'archetype' to describe Steiner, it would have to be that of 'the professor' – or, more precisely, the Doctor, as he was known by those around him. Commenting on her magnum opus, The Secret Doctrine, Madame Blavatsky once remarked that she "wrote, wrote, wrote," like the Wandering Jew "walks, walks, walks". Steiner, too, wrote a great deal, but his main mode of disseminating his ideas was lecturing, and in the years between 1900 and 1925 he lectured, lectured, lectured, delivering more than 6,000 talks across Europe.
In a dry and at times pedantic style, Steiner informed his audience of the results of his spiritual research, his "super-sensible" readings of the occult history of the world made available to him through what is called "the Akashic Record". In matter-of-fact terms, he introduced them to his teaching – 'anthroposophy', as he called it – telling them along the way about ancient Atlantis, life after death, astral and ætheric bodies, the true meaning of Christianity and much, much more. Yet this humble, self-effacing character became one of the most influential – and simultaneously vilified – forces in the spiritual and cultural life of early 20th-century Europe. And his ideas are still powerfully influential today. Steiner's efforts to lead "the Spiritual in the human being to the Spiritual in the Universe" have produced remarkably concrete results. Since his death, more than 1,000 schools around the world work with Steiner's pedagogical principles, not to mention the many "special needs" schools, working along lines developed by Steiner more than a century ago. There are also the hundreds of 'bio-dynamic' farms, employing Steiner's agricultural insights, developed decades in advance of our interest in ecology and organic foods. The practical application of Steiner's ideas have also informed very successful avenues in holistic healthcare, the arts, architecture, economics, religion and other areas.
So, given these achievements in the 'real world', which certainly exceed those of other 'esoteric teachers', why isn't Steiner better known? You would reasonably expect the average educated person to have some idea of who, say, Jung is, or Krishnamurti, or the Dalai Lama; possibly even Blavatsky, Gurdjieff and Crowley. But Steiner? He remains something of a mystery, a name associated with a handful of different disciplines and endeavours, but not solidly linked to any one thing. He remains, as one of his most eloquent apologists, the Inkling Owen Barfield, called him, "the best kept secret of the 20th century." It's certainly time that he was better known.EARLY LIFE
Rudolf Steiner was born on 27 February 1861 in the small rural town of Kraljevec in what was then Hungary but is today part of Croatia. His father was a telegraph operator for the Southern Austria Railway, and Steiner spent his first years amidst magnificent scenery: mountain ranges and green plains were his playgrounds. Steiner later felt it significant that he grew up in a part of Europe where East and West meet, as it was also significant that his childhood had an equal measure of natural beauty and modern technology – at the time, both the railways and telegraph were relatively new innovations. In his book Knowledge of the Higher Worlds and its Attainment (1905), Steiner relates that a crucial experience on the path of higher consciousness is an encounter with "the Guardian of the Threshold", a spiritual being embodying one's unredeemed karma. Well before his career as an esoteric teacher, Steiner was himself a dweller on several thresholds, having one foot in the mysteries of nature, the other in the methodology of science. It was this combination of mystic visionary and disciplined thinker that gave Steiner's later career its peculiar character.
When Steiner was eight, his father was transferred to Neudörfl, near the border with Lower Austria. An argument with the local teacher led his father to educate the boy himself, and this meant that he spent a great deal of time on his own at the railway station where his father worked. Young Steiner was deeply introverted; as he admits in his Autobiography (1925), he had great difficulty relating to the outer world. He also had an inquisitive mind and was obsessed with many questions the adults he knew seemed unable to answer. This subjectivity might have taken a morbid turn were it not for his discovery of mathematics. When Steiner came upon a book of geometry, it was a revelation. "That one can work out forms which are seen purely inwardly, independent of the outer senses, gave me a feeling of deep contentment. I found consolation for the loneliness caused by the many unanswered questions. To be able to grasp something purely spiritual brought me an inner joy. I know that through geometry I first experienced happiness."
Steiner's joy upon discovering geometry may strike us as odd, yet the experience was essential in getting him through an early crisis. What impressed Steiner so greatly about geometry was that it seemed to offer proof that within the mind there existed a kind of "soul-space," an inner equivalent of the external space of the natural world. This "soul-space" was "the setting for spiritual beings and events". Thoughts for the young Steiner were not "mere pictures we form of things"; they were rather the "revelations of a spiritual world seen on the stage of the soul". Geometry, Steiner believed, although produced by the human mind, had an objective reality independent of it, and for him this meant that the "soul-space" in which it was revealed was also real. 2
Rather precocious stuff, perhaps, but Steiner's early years included an event that made him question the outer world's monopoly on reality.
One day at a railway station, he had a paranormal experience, an early manifestation of his psychic abilities. Sitting in the waiting room, he saw a strange woman enter; although he didn't know her, he felt she resembled other members of his family. Standing in the middle of the room, the woman spoke to the boy. "Try and help me as much as you can – now as well as in later life," she said. Then she walked into the stove and disappeared. Steiner decided not to tell his parents, afraid that they would scold him for lying. But he noticed that his father was sad, and he later discovered that a female relative who lived in a neighbouring town had committed suicide at the same time that he had had his vision. Although he makes no mention of the episode in his Autobiography, in a lecture given in Berlin in 1913, Steiner spoke of the experience. Speaking in the third person, he told his audience: "from that time onward a soul-life began to develop in the boy which made him entirely conscious of worlds from which not only external trees or mountains speak to the human soul, but also the Beings who live behind them…" 3
This early experience marks for Steiner the beginning of a life-long involvement with the dead. Much of his later esoteric teaching involves accounts of the soul's experience in the afterlife and of the machinery of karma and reincarnation, the balancing of spiritual books that casts the departed back into the stream of life in order to complete their tasks. While other boys of Steiner's age were fantasising about the Austrian equivalent of cowboys and Indians, he was preoccupied with the reality of the spirit worlds and the soul's encounters with the beings that inhabit them.
Later, as a young man, Steiner would on two occasions have unusual opportunities to verify some of his ideas about the meaning of death. Twice he would come into intimate contact with families in which the father was a recluse who would die soon after Steiner made their acquaintance. Yet on both occasions, although never actually meeting the man, Steiner formed a profound intuitive relation with the deceased, so deep and insightful in fact that he was asked by both families to give the oration at the funerals. Later still, during his years as an esoteric teacher, Steiner informed his followers that one means of helping the dead in their spiritual journeys was to read to them from his writings.
MEETING THE MASTERS
When Steiner was 18, his father was transferred once again, this time to Inzersdorf. His new location had the advantage of being close to Vienna, and it was decided that Steiner would study at the Technical School there. Although he had leanings toward literature and philosophy, he chose instead to work towards becoming a science teacher. One day on the train to Vienna, he met a man who would have a profound influence on his life. Felix Koguzki was a herb-gatherer who travelled to Vienna regularly to sell his wares. It's not known how they fell into conversation, but the teenage Steiner soon discovered that this simple, uneducated man had strange experiences like his own, and a deep, personal knowledge of the other worlds. He was the first person with whom he could speak about his spiritual visions, and their talks boosted Steiner's confidence; more than likely, they also convinced him that he wasn't crazy. Around the same time, Steiner had an encounter with another individual whose name, unfortunately, has not come down to us. Steiner refers to him only as the 'Master'.
The French writer Edouard Schuré, author of the bestselling The Great Initiates (1889), and later a friend and follower of Steiner, remarked that the Master was "one of those potent personalities who are on Earth to fulfil a mission under the mask of some homely occupation". Steiner had by this time read widely in philosophy, specifically the German Idealists, and had worked his way through Hegel, Schelling and several others, absorbing Kant's often daunting Critique of Pure Reason during his history class – which bored him. Steiner was obsessed, then and for the rest of his life, with refuting scientific materialism, and this became the impulse that drove his philosophical studies. What little we know of the Master is that he pointed out some passages in the work of Johann Gottlieb Fichte, one of Kant's most important followers, which helped Steiner in his quest. Fichte's work focused on the centrality of the human ego, the 'I', the locus of consciousness and the self that the materialism of Steiner's day (and our own) argued was a mere illusion. Steiner's spiritual experiences convinced him that this was palpably false and that the 'I', rather than being an illusion, was a concrete, irreducible reality. For the next 20 years, until Steiner's re-invention as a spiritual leader, his work would focus on developing a methodical epistemology proving this fact.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
The single most important influence on his ideas, however, was the work of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Goethe is best known for his drama Faust, which takes a cautionary tale about a pact with the Devil and transforms it into an archetype of Western consciousness. Although he's never quite enjoyed the same reputation amongst English-speaking readers, Goethe is one of the Olympians of Western literature, sharing the top shelf with Plato, Dante and Shakespeare (Jung too thought Goethe a key figure, even to the extent of sometimes believing he was an illegitimate descendent of the great man). Often regarded as the last true Renaissance man, Goethe was not just a giant of literature but also a statesman, traveller and, most important for Steiner, a scientist, making important contributions to botany, anatomy, mineralogy and optics. Through his literature tutor, Karl Schröer, who opened his mind to Goethe's importance, Steiner was offered what must have seemed the chance of a lifetime. At 22, he was headhunted as the editor of Goethe's scientific writings for a major edition of the great man's work.
For an unknown rural scholar to be offered such a position might seem unusual, but the general consensus on Goethe's scientific musings at this point was that they were useless as science and dreary as literature; in truth, no one else wanted the job of editing them. Aside from his early success in proving that the human upper jaw contained the intermaxillary bone found in other mammals – Goethe was, in a very different way, an evolutionist long before Darwin – most scientists found Goethe's attempts to disprove Newton's theory of colour, or to demonstrate the existence of what he called the Urpflanze, the archetypal plant from which all others emerged, muddleheaded if not insane. Yet for Steiner, Goethean science was the prototype for what would become his own phenomenology of the spirit worlds. Instead of the orthodox scientist's cold, dispassionate eye regarding the world as mere matter, passive to his intrusions, Goethe called instead for "objective imagination", an active participation in the reality under scrutiny. The subjectivity of the scientist – his state of consciousness – was vastly more important than the increasingly hair-splitting exactitude provided by his instruments. This "objective imagination" became for Steiner the basis for his own later "super-sensible cognition".
Steiner's work on Goethe opened many doors. One led to Weimar, Goethe's city, where he was asked to work on the Goethe Archive, another prestigious task. Although Steiner found few congenial colleagues, the work had other compensations. He was introduced to the city's literary and cultural life and made many acquaintances. One in particular led to a momentous meeting. Elizabeth Forster Nietzsche, sister of the ill-fated philosopher (and herself a rabid anti-Semite), approached Steiner to work with her in establishing a Nietzsche Archive. This led to Elizabeth introducing Steiner to her brother, who had been insane – some claim from syphilis, although this has been disputed – for several years. Elizabeth had taken to dressing the defenceless Friedrich in a toga, and positioning him by the window, where his blank stare and unkempt appearance provided the impression of a great prophet. Steiner, aware of Nietzsche's madness, was nevertheless impressed – not with the figure before him, but with its spiritual aura. He saw Nietzsche's soul "hovering over his head, infinitely beautiful in its spiritual sight…" It was a soul that "brought from former lives on Earth golden riches of great spirituality…" 4 If mention of Nietzsche's "soul" brimming with "golden riches of great spirituality" suggests to readers familiar with the author of Beyond Good and Evil and The Antichrist that Steiner was as ignorant of Nietzsche's philosophy as his sister Elizabeth notoriously was, they should have a look at Steiner's book Friedrich Nietzsche: Fighter for Freedom (1895), a remarkably perceptive study which at times actually reads like Nietzsche. Throughout his career, Steiner had an uncanny knack of entering into and defending the ideas of thinkers with whom he had profound disagreements – like the staunch materialist Ernst Haeckel – a critical sympathy that often led to much misunderstanding.
When his work at Weimar was ending, rather than embark on an academic career (Steiner had received his doctorate in philosophy during his stay and could easily have found a comfortable niche somewhere), he decided instead to move to Berlin, home of Germany's nascent avant-garde. He had by this time published what many believe to be his most important book, The Philosophy of Freedom (1894), an exhilarating, if often difficult, work of epistemology which Steiner believed established beyond doubt the reality of the human 'I'. Others, like the influential philosopher Eduard von Hartmann, author of the once immensely popular The Philosophy of the Unconscious, were less convinced and suggested he had muddled the question. Steiner, however, was undaunted and believed he had a mission to disseminate his ideas. He also needed to find work. Although his followers tend to see Steiner's life as the undeviating unfolding of a preordained destiny – and Steiner himself, we must admit, contributes to this belief – like the rest of us, he was looking for his place in the world and the means to get on in it. He was also filled – rightly so – with the conviction of his own genius. The literary and cultural world of Berlin might offer opportunities not available elsewhere. Steiner, however, made the thoroughly impractical decision of buying a moribund periodical, The Magazine for Literature. His previous brief catastrophic experience in Vienna as an editor of a political magazine seemingly forgotten, Steiner proceeded to run the already failing Magazine for Literature into the ground, alienating its readers with his persistent exhortations regarding the spiritual life. In the age of Strindberg, Wilde, Ibsen, Wedekind, and Shaw, Steiner's idealism seemed a stale leftover from a forgotten time.
Yet, although he bemoaned the burden destiny had placed on him, Steiner seems to have enjoyed hobnobbing with the bohemians; his acquaintances included poets, playwrights, novelists and political activists. In fact, his reputation among the demi-monde caused academics to cancel their subscriptions, and Steiner also earned the unique distinction of being the one esoteric teacher – I believe – to have a periodical banned in Czarist Russia, because its editor was known to socialise with anarchists. It was also in Berlin that Steiner married his first wife – although one gets the impression that his relationship with Anna Eunicke was little more than platonic. Anna had been Steiner's landlady in Weimar, and when he moved to Berlin had followed him. There, he moved in with her again and, almost as an afterthought, married her in 1899 in a civil ceremony. (It was in the Eunicke household in Weimar that Steiner had had one of his experiences with the death of a reclusive father.) Anna, not particularly well educated or cultured, was apparently very happy to have Herr Doctor Steiner under her roof; Steiner, for his part, thus avoided the "misery of living alone" – as well as that of the cheap lodgings and bad food he had hitherto endured. Anna was 10 years older than Rudolf, and their relationship inevitably raises the question of Steiner's sexuality, of which there is no mention in the entire 406 pages of his Autobiography. I do have it on the authority of one Steiner scholar, Christopher Bamford, that the Doctor was indeed celibate.
THEOSOPHIST TO ANTHROPOSOPHIST
It was in Berlin that Steiner's real career began. For a time, he seemed willing to speak to any group who would listen to him. He lectured on history and several other subjects at the Workingman's College, surreptitiously slipping large doses of Idealism to budding Marxist materialists. He also lectured to the Giordano Bruno Society and The Coming Day, a quasi-Nietzschean cultural group. He managed, however, to alienate all of these (as well as Anna Eunicke, whom he soon left) when he accepted a request to lecture to the Berlin Theosophical Society. For years, Steiner had tried to express his insights into the spiritual worlds under the cover of philosophy. Now, at the turn of the century and at the age of 40, he decided to forgo the camouflage and speak directly of his experiences.
Steiner quickly rose to prominence among the Theosophists, and was soon made head of the society's German Branch. One member of his audience was particularly struck. Marie von Sivers – who in 1914 became Steiner's second wife – was a Baltic Russian actress. She asked if it weren't time for a new spiritual movement to arise in Europe, and, more to the point, didn't Steiner think he should lead it? Steiner agreed, but insisted that any such movement would be firmly based on Western esoteric sources. Steiner had recently passed through a spiritual crisis which convinced him that the Christ event was the single most important incident in human history; he had no time for 'Eastern wisdom' or mystic Mahatmas. He then more or less adopted the cosmic evolutionary framework of Madame Blavatsky's Secret Doctrine and imbued it with large helpings of German Idealist philosophy and Christian mysticism, developing a peculiarly idiosyncratic neo-Rosicrucian system of esoteric thought, aided by his own readings of the Akashic Record. (For a detailed account, see Steiner's 1909 Outline of Occult Science.) In the light of all this, it's difficult to ignore the occult historian James Webb's remark that Steiner joined the Theosophical Society in order to take it over.
His relationship with the society, however, was rocky, and in 1913 he and its then head, ex-Fabian Annie Besant, came to rhetorical blows over CW Leadbeater's advocacy of the Indian boy Krishnamurti as the second coming of Christ. Steiner was disgusted at the idea, and even more so at Leadbeater's known pædophilic predilections. He demanded Besant's resignation; she retaliated by excommunicating him. Steiner left with much of his flock – by this time a few thousand – and started his own group, the Anthroposophical Society. As opposed to theosophy, which spoke of the wisdom of the gods, anthroposophy – an uncommon though not unknown term in Western philosophy – was concerned with the wisdom of the human being.
Practically the first thing Steiner did was to build a temple for his new movement. Land was secured in Dornach, Switzerland, and during World War I Steiner gathered a community of followers from several countries to construct the Goetheanum, a weirdly beautiful fusion of art nouveau and Expressionist architecture that Steiner himself designed. His lecturing was curtailed by the fighting, but his greatest popularity came with the war's end. Steiner's plan to reconstruct Europe, The Threefold Commonwealth, sold some 80,000 copies in its first edition, and audiences for his public appearances were now in the thousands; on one occasion, the crowds outside a Berlin auditorium were so great they stopped traffic. This period, however, also saw the start of the anti-Steiner campaign that would plague him henceforth. Practically everybody had in it for him: Catholics, Protestants, Marxists, proto-Nazis, not to mention other esotericists. There were at least two attempts on his life, and the number of occult attacks fomented by the ‘black brotherhoods' is unknown. One clear victory from this time was the establishment of the first Steiner school in Stuttgart in 1919. Based on pedagogical principles developed over decades of tutoring – in Vienna he had cured a retarded hydrocephalic boy to the extent that the child grew up to earn a medical degree – Steiner's educational ideas earned him deserved renown, and an international reputation among experts that continues today.
Although Steiner endured vilification in the press and disruption at his lectures with equanimity, one victim of the attacks was, many believe, the Goetheanum, which burned to the ground on New Year's Eve 1922. Arson by right-wing proto-Nazis is the common assumption, although an electrical fault remains a possibility. In any case, a decade's effort – not to mention an architectural wonder – was lost overnight: the building was made of the same flammable wood as that used in the construction of violins and burned fiercely. Steiner took the tragedy as a sign that some changes in the society were necessary. His original occult teachings – based on the idea of an evolution of consciousness and the ability to achieve ‘super-sensible thinking' – were, he felt, obscured by the success of subsequent initiatives. Steiner education, the Christian Community (a religious group using Steiner's ideas), the Threefold Movement for social change, eurhythmy – a form of what he called "visible speech" – and newer developments like bio-dynamic farming and anthroposophical medicine were taking centre stage. Steiner had attracted many younger followers after the war, eager to rebuild society, and these clashed with his older, more esoterically inclined devotees. Bickering within the Anthroposophical Society, whose numbers had swollen in the post-war years, threatened to undo much of what had been achieved. On the first anniversary of the Goetheanum's destruction, Steiner announced plans for a second temple (it stands today in Dornach, defiantly made of concrete). He also told his followers that he was reconstructing the Anthroposophical Society as well. Although he had not previously been even a member of the Society, remaining only its spiritual guide and adviser, he now declared himself president of the newly formed General Anthroposophical Society which, although most successful in Germany, has branches today around the world.
Steiner's last years were spent in sowing as many seeds as possible for future work; they were also darkened by his belief in a coming world conflagration, when the archangel Michael, overseer of the current stage of human consciousness, would face off against the power of Ahriman, a spiritual being who seeks to prevent humanity's development. Steiner spoke ominously of the incarnation of Ahriman, an Antichrist-like figure, whose display of miraculous powers would precede a catastrophic "war of all against all". Steiner believed this unavoidable destiny would take some time to unfold – Ahriman is scheduled to arrive sometime in the 3000s – yet many of his followers suspect that in recent years the process has been speeded up. Steiner himself had grave doubts about the growing pace of technological development, warning his followers that materialist science gains its great power through unwittingly releasing Ahrimanic entities. In his last communications, Steiner called on his followers to develop their consciousness in order to rise above nature to the same extent that technology sank below it. He also gave a series of lectures about karma and its work in human history.
Steiner died on 30 March 1925. He had been ill for at least a year with an undisclosed stomach ailment, although there is some speculation that he had been poisoned. He continued lecturing until it was physically impossible for him to do so, and his followers were astounded when, on the evening of his last scheduled lecture, they found a note stating that it had to be cancelled because of the Doctor's health. Nothing like this had ever happened before. The Doctor, they believed, was invulnerable. The exact nature of Steiner's illness remains unknown, but it is clear that his inability to refuse help to those who came to him was a key factor. Along with his public and private lectures, and his practical work as a teacher, architect and agriculturalist, Steiner made himself available to any who needed his counsel. For many years, he had practically no free time, and wherever he went, his hotel room saw a constant stream of visitors, including, on one occasion, Franz Kafka. Some asked about their astral bodies; others, their diet or their marriages. Kafka, if you're wondering, asked about his writing. Steiner advised them all, giving little bits of himself to thousands. He was, as the Russian novelist Andrei Belyi, a follower, once remarked "a giant of the power of kindness". 5 It's not hard to see how such solicitude would eventually wear anyone down.
In the end, it's difficult to give an exact assessment of a man whose work combines cogent criticisms of Kant with accounts of life in Atlantis. But this "mild, gentle, good, kindly man", whose achievement in "humanitarian terms is remarkable and enduring" – as the psychiatrist Anthony Storr wrote of Steiner in his 1996 study of gurus, Feet of Clay – remains, for devotee and non-initiate alike, something of an enigma.