1861 (February 27): Rudolf Steiner was born in Kraljevec, a mountain village that is now in Croatia but was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
1875: Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and Henry Steel Alcott founded the Theosophical Society in New York City.
1883: Rudolf Steiner began his work as an editor of Goethe’s scientific writings.
1886: Rudolf Steiner worked as a tutor to Otto Specht, who suffered from hydrocephaly.
1894: Rudolf Steiner published The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity.
1902: Rudolf Steiner was elected General Secretary of the German Section of the Theosophical Society, with the support of Annie Besant.
1904: Rudolf Steiner published Theosophy: An Introduction to the Spiritual Processes in Human Life and in the Cosmos.
1909: Rudolf Steiner published An Outline of Esoteric Science.
1909: Theosophists C. W. Leadbeater and Annie Besant began promoting Jiddu Krishnamurti, then fourteen years old, as a “World Teacher,” provoking opposition from Rudolf Steiner.
1910: Rudolf Steiner’s first mystery drama, The Portal of Initiation, was performed in Munich.
1912: The Anthroposophical Society was founded in Cologne, Germany, with 3,000 members.
1912: Rudolf Steiner and Marie von Sievers introduced the new arts of eurythmy and speech formation.
1913 (February 2 and 3): The Anthroposophical Society held its first annual meeting in Berlin.
1913 (September 20): Rudolf Steiner laid the cornerstone of the first Goetheanum in Dornach, Switzerland.
1914 (December 24): Rudolf Steiner married Marie von Sievers.
1918: Rudolf Steiner began promoting a “threefold social order” as a method for postwar reconstruction in Europe.
1919: Rudolf Steiner and Emil Molt established the Free Waldorf School to educate the children of workers in Molt’s factory in Stuttgart.
1920: Rudolf Steiner, working closely with Ita Wegman, offered his first course of lectures for physicians.
1921: Ita Wegman established the first anthroposophical clinic in Arlesheim, Switzerland.
1922: Forty-five ministers, led by Friedrich Rittelmeyer, established the Christian Community, a Movement for Religious Renewal.
1922-1923: Arsonists destroyed the first Goetheanum on New Year’s Eve.
1923-1924: The General Anthroposophical Society was re-founded under Rudolf Steiner’s direct leadership.
1924: Rudolf Steiner offered course of lectures on agriculture and on curative education, establishing the final two major anthroposophical initiatives.
1925 (March 30): Rudolf Steiner died.
1928: The second Goetheanum was opened.
1926: Charlotte Parker, Ralph Courtney, and other young anthroposophists established Threefold Farm in Spring Valley, New York.
1927: Biodynamic farmers began selling their grain using the “Demeter” label, the world’s first system of organic certification.
1935: Marie Steiner, Albert Steffen, and Günther Wachsmuth expelled Ita Wegman and Elisabeth Vreede from the General Anthroposophical Society and its executive council. The Society then severed relations with its British and Dutch branches, which had supported Wegman and Vreede.
1939: Karl König and other refugees from Nazi-occupied Austria began the Camphill movement near Aberdeen, Scotland.
1960: Willem Zeylmans von Emmichoven, president of the Dutch branch, agreed with Albert Steffen to end the separation of that branch, beginning the gradual healing of the 1935 schism.
1961: Ernst Barkhoff and his colleagues established a charitable trust to support “loan communities” for Waldorf schools and biodynamic farms. This trust grew into the first major anthroposophical bank, the Gemeinschaftsbank für Leihen und Schenken.
1980: The German Green Party was founded with strong support from anthroposophists, among them artist Joseph Beuys and politician Gerald Häfner.
1986: Community supported agriculture began in the United States at Temple-Wilton Community Farm in New Hampshire, Indian Line Farm in Massachusetts, and Kimberton Farm in Pennsylvania.
Anthroposophy is a form of “spiritual science” introduced by Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), who described it as “a path of knowledge aiming to guide the spiritual element in the human being to the spiritual in the universe” (Steiner 1973—GA 26). Anthroposophy is directly cultivated by the 52,000 members of the General Anthroposophical Society, which has national branches in fifty countries. Far more people participate in “initiatives” rooted in anthroposophy. These include the Waldorf network of schools, the biodynamic movement in agriculture, the form of spiritual movement known as eurythmy, the Camphill network of intentional communities, the religious denomination known as the Christian Community, and specifically anthroposophical forms of medicine, architecture, banking, speech, and care for persons with disabilities.
Rudolf Steiner [Image at right] was born in Kraljevec, the son of an Austrian railroad engineer. He pursued his undergraduate education at the Vienna Institute of Technology, supplementing his scientific studies with wide reading in philosophy. He then worked as a private tutor, helping a young boy with hydrocephaly prepare for a medical career. He edited the scientific writings of Goethe for a of great works of German literature, and worked at the Schiller-Goethe Archives in Weimar. He completed his doctorate in philosophy at the University of Rostock.
As a young man, Steiner had a diverse mix of philosophical and political commitments. He was fascinated by evolutionary science and its leading German promoter, Ernst Häckel, but he was also critical of Häckel’s stridently materialistic worldview. He published articles criticizing anti-Semitism during the time of the Dreyfus Affair and at times he described himself as an “individualist anarchist,” but also participated in German nationalist organizations. In the 1890s he offered a popular lecture series on history and philosophy for the Workers’ Educational School in Berlin, but ultimately lost that position because of his refusal to subscribe to a Marxist worldview. During these years, he also had a variety of spiritual experiences and encounters with unusual teachers, but he chose not to speak publicly about such things (Steiner 1999—GA 28).
In 1899, Steiner had an especially intense spiritual experience in which he felt that he “stood spiritually before the Mystery of Golgotha in a deep and solemn celebration of knowledge” (Steiner 1999: 239—GA 28). This forced him to rethink many of his earlier criticisms of Christianity, though he never endorsed the doctrines of the mainstream Protestant or Catholic churches. A year later, he began giving lectures (on such topics as Goethe and Nietzsche) at a Theosophical library in Berlin. And in 1902 the German Section of the Theosophical Society was founded in Berlin, with Steiner as General Secretary and his soon-to-be wife, Marie von Sievers, as Secretary.
Steiner was extraordinarily active in the decade he spent as a Theosophical leader. He edited a journal, Luzifer-Gnosis, gave lectures series throughout Europe, and produced four of the five “basic books” that are recommended to newcomers to anthroposophy: How to Know Higher Worlds, Theosophy, Outline of Esoteric Science, and Christianity as Mystical Fact. At the same time, he experienced increasing discontent with the teachings of Annie Besant, in particular with her promotion of young Jiddu Krishnamurti as a World Teacher and Second Coming of Christ. The Theosophists’ emphasis on the wisdom of the East, Steiner came to believe, was fundamentally misguided: the West had its own spiritual traditions, some of them repressed by official Christianity, and these were better suited to the modern world and an evolutionary worldview. Accordingly, he encouraged his students to organize a separate spiritual organization, and the Anthroposophical Society began its work in 1912 and 1913.
Shortly before the founding of the Anthroposophical Society, Steiner began devoting more of his energies to artistic endeavors. In 1910, he arranged for the performance of The Portal of Initiation, the first of a series of four “Mystery Dramas” that gave theatrical expression to the impact of karma and reincarnation on modern lives (Steiner 1925—GA 14). Soon after the founding of the Anthroposophical Society, it received land for a headquarters in Dornach, Switzerland, and Steiner designed and supervised the building of the first Goetheanum. [Image at right] With a double-domed structure intended to mirror organic forms, the Goetheanum incorporated the work of sculptors, painters, and stained glass artists, all to the end of creating a physical space suffused with spiritual meaning. In 1917, Steiner began collaborating with Edith Maryon on a large sculpture called the “Representative of Man.” It depicts Christ standing between the two demons Lucifer and Ahriman, illustrating the anthroposophical principle that one must find a balance between the Luciferic forces that call us out of the material world and the Ahrimanic powers that would bind us to matter. Steiner also worked with Marie Steiner to develop the form of “visible speech” known as eurythmy.
Steiner was deeply affected by the First World War, and for a time functioned as an advisor to the German military leader Helmuth von Moltke. Loyal to the Germanic cosmopolitanism of Austro-Hungary, he despised Woodrow Wilson and complained that “the creation of all kinds of national states and petty national states . . . is a retrograde step that inhibits the evolution of mankind.” (Staudenmaier 2014:70; Steiner 1976: lecture 9; Steiner 1923). He also came to see both capitalism and socialism as dangerously one-sided in their prescriptions for social wellbeing. As an alternative, he promoted a Threefold Social Order in which distinct, self-governing bodies would oversee the realms of culture (including both religion and education), of politics, and of the economy. Borrowing the slogan of the French Revolution, he taught that freedom was the decisive value in the cultural sphere, equality in the political (or “rights”) sphere, and fraternity in the sphere of economics. In the time of postwar crisis, Steiner’s appeal “To the German People and the Civilized World” attracted such high-profile signatories as Hermann Hesse, as well as the vituperation of both Fascists and Communists (Steiner 1985—GA 24). Steiner’s students organized networks of cooperative businesses (known as The Coming Day in Germany and The Future in Switzerland) intended to put threefolding principles into practice and generate profits that would help sustain the spiritual work of the Anthroposophical Society. But, as hyperinflation took hold, most of these businesses failed, at great cost to Steiner’s wealthiest students and to Steiner personally. He began teaching that humanity was not yet ready to put threefolding into practice.
Steiner did not lose his interest in applying spiritual science to the problems of the world, however; he simply channeled that interest in some new directions. In 1919, Steiner’s student Emil Molt, who managed a cigarette factory in Stuttgart, asked Steiner to develop a curriculum for a school for the children of his employees. Because the factory was called the Waldorf-Astoria, this became known as the Waldorf School, the first in a global network that today includes about one thousand elementary or high schools, two thousand kindergartens, and hundreds of special education programs. Over the next five years, Steiner gave multiple lecture series on pedagogy.
He also branched out to address other professional groups, always in response to the request or repeated entreaty of students belonging to the specific profession. He gave his first course for scientists in 1919, his first course for physicians in 1920, and his first course for ministers in 1922. Participants in these courses were then expected to put Steiner’s indications into practice, and this led to the development of anthroposophical medicine by participants in the physicians’ course, under the leadership of Ita Wegman, and of the Christian Community by participants in the ministers’ course, following Friedrich Rittelmeyer. Steiner integrated his educational and medical insights in a course on curative education (that is, work with people with developmental disabilities) in 1924, then gave his final course for professionals to a group of farmers who had been involved in the cooperative enterprises of The Coming Day. This was the basis for biodynamic agriculture.
Steiner’s final years were also marked by controversy and tragedy. On the eve of the New Year of 1923, the Goetheanum burned down under mysterious circumstances. Over the year that followed, divisions heightened between the older and younger generations of Steiner’s students, and Steiner became convinced that neither group had a properly balanced understanding of the relationship between the core spiritual teachings of anthroposophy and its practical initiatives. His solution was to re-establish the Anthroposophical Society, now called the General Anthroposophical Society, and now with himself in the office of president. He also created a distinct School of Spiritual Science, also with himself at its head, to foster spiritual research. This occurred at what is known as the Christmas Conference of 1923 and 1924. Steiner’s health worsened steadily over the year that followed, but he refused to reduce the pace of lecturing, writing, providing individualized spiritual guidance to students, and preparing for the rebuilding of the Goetheanum (on different, but equally innovative, architectural principles). He died in Dornach on March 30, 1925.
After Steiner’s death, leadership of the General Anthroposophical Society passed to a five person executive council: Albert Steffen (a poet from Switzerland and the Council’s president), Marie Steiner, Günther Wachsmuth (who also served as head of the natural science section), Ita Wegman (Steiner’s primary collaborator in the development of anthroposophical medicine), and Elisabeth Vreede (a mathematician and a leading figure in the Dutch branch of the Society). A conflict over the spiritual leadership of Ita Wegman split the Society in the 1930s; the two factions began an extended process of reconciliation in the 1960s.
The anthroposophical movement experienced significant disruption before and during World War II. Anthroposophical initiatives were simultaneously suppressed and promoted by different factions within the Nazi party, and members of the Society responded with a similar mix of attitudes. During and after the war, students of Steiner fled first Nazism and then Communism, bringing anthroposophical ideas and initiatives to every corner of the world. The Society experienced steady growth for the remainder of the twentieth century, reaching a plateau of about 50,000 members at the beginning of the new millennium. Anthroposophical initiatives, by contrast, experienced their most rapid growth after 1970, and they continue to spread and expand today.
Rudolf Steiner was adamant that anthroposophy does not contain any “doctrines” that participants must accept on faith. He urged his followers to develop their own capacities for “spiritual research” and to accept his teaching only to the extent that it was confirmed by their own experience. At the same time, he offered detailed “indications,” about far too many topics to describe here, in dozens of books and hundreds of lectures. Among the more prominent themes of his teaching were the nature of spiritual science itself, the constitution of the human being, the evolution of humanity on earth and on other planets, the inner meaning of Christianity, and the proper constitution of society. Steiner’s teachings on many of these topics mirrored those of the Theosophical Society, especially the writings of Madame Blavatsky and Annie Besant. Steiner acknowledged these parallels but insisted that he did not teach anything publicly unless he had confirmed it through his own spiritual research.
Steiner’s early book, The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity (also translated as The Philosophy of Freedom and Intuitive Thinking), was published before he emerged as a spiritual teacher but is still valued by his students as a summary of the epistemological underpinnings of anthroposophy. In this book, Steiner challenged Immanuel Kant’s well-known distinction between the phenomenon and the noumenon. It is possible, Steiner countered, to obtain reliable knowledge of things in themselves (and not merely of things as we experience them) if we begin by reflecting on our own thinking. Pure thinking is thus the basis of human freedom (Steiner 1995—GA 4).
Steiner’s subsequent books drew much more explicitly from the “spiritual research” Steiner claimed to be able to conduct using the clairvoyant capacities he had developed in a scientific manner. In Theosophy, Steiner outlined what are often referred to as the “threefold” and “fourfold” views of human nature. He described the human being as composed of spirit, soul, and body, repudiating the dualism that results from the conflation of the individual soul with the universal spirit. In later lectures, he would relate these three principles to the three basic human functions (thinking, feeling, and willing) located respectively in the “nerve-brain system,” the “rhythmic system” of heart and lungs, and the “metabolic-limb system.” These categories opened up a host of additional correspondences, for example to the Spirit, Son, and Father of Christian theology or to the social spheres of culture, politics, and the economy. The “fourfold” account of humanity, on the other hand, distinguishes four bodies: a physical body composed of the same material elements as minerals, plants, and animals; an etheric or “life” body that is common to plants, animals, and humans; an astral or “soul” body similar to that possessed by animals; and an integrating “I” that is uniquely human. This framework only reveals humanity as it has evolved thus far; Steiner also described additional bodies that humans will eventually achieve. In the later chapters of Theosophy, Steiner described the karmic processes that take place between death and rebirth (Steiner 1994a—GA 9).
Outline of Esoteric Science places the human story in a cosmic context, claiming that our evolutionary process began not on planet Earth but on a much earlier planet with some spiritual correspondences to Saturn. This planet was reincarnated in phases corresponding to the Sun and the Moon, making our Earth the fourth in what will be an ongoing series of incarnations. Steiner’s narrative then traced the epochs of earthly history in greater details. He fleshed out many more details in dozens of lectures given to anthroposophical audiences (Steiner 1997a—GA 13).
Because Steiner believed that Theosophists had downplayed the esoteric contributions of the West, his own teaching incorporated a strong emphasis on Christian materials. He described the Christ as an exalted spiritual being, associated with the Sun, who incarnated in two human personalities at a crucial juncture in human history. These two personalities (corresponding to the divergent infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke) ultimately became one, and Christ’s being became one with the earth when his blood was shed at Golgotha. Steiner also predicted that Christ would reappear to humanity in the middle of the twentieth century, not in a physical body but in the etheric sphere (Steiner 1997b—GA 8; Steiner 1998).
Another important source of Steiner’s ideas is How to Know Higher Worlds, a book based on articles published early in his theosophical phase. Here he offers a brief sketch of the spiritual practices that will, he claim, enable any person to develop the same sort of clairvoyant capacities that were the basis of Steiner’s voluminous esoteric teachings (Steiner 1994b—GA 10).
Just as no specific beliefs are mandatory for members of the Anthroposophical Society, so too there are a wide variety of anthroposophical practices but none that are binding on all. Two of the most common are study and meditation. Most active members of the Anthroposophical Society participate in a study group devoted to the reading and discussion of Steiner’s writings. These groups typically move very slowly through their chosen text, often focusing on just a page or two at each meeting. The goal is to engage Steiner’s words not only at an intellectual level, but through one’s thinking, feeling, and willing.
One of Steiner’s functions as a spiritual teacher was to offer his students brief mantras, or “verses” as a basis for meditation. Many members of the Anthroposophical Society participate in the First Class of the School of Spiritual Science, an esoteric school that follows Steiner’s sequence of thirty-eight Class Lessons, each centered on a meditative verse and accompanying explanation. Steiner also offered verses to local or national societies, and for particular occasions. Steiner’s often quoted “Verse for America,” for example, reads:
May our feeling penetrate
Into the center of our heart,
And seek, in love, to unite itself
With human beings seeking the same goal,
With spirit beings who, bearing grace,
Strengthening us from realms of light
And illumining our love,
Are gazing down upon
Our earnest, heartfelt striving (Barnes 2005:620)
Steiner gave a much longer “Foundation Stone Meditation” at the culmination of the meeting that refounded the Anthroposophical Society. Addressed to each “Human Soul,” this document has a threefold structure that correlates the limb system with God the Father, the rhythmic system with the Christ, and the brain system with the Holy Spirit. It then concludes with Christmas imagery, declaring that “at time’s turning point / the Cosmic Spirit-Light entered / Into earthly life-stream” in a manner that “warms the simple shepherd-hearts” and “enlightens the wise heads of Kings” (Steiner 1980). This meditation is often dramatized or recited using the speech techniques taught by Marie Steiner. Another widely used collection of verses is the Calendar of the Soul, which contains one verse for each week of the year. The content of these alludes both to climatic conditions in temperate zones of the northern hemisphere and to the main themes of the Christian liturgical year (Steiner 1982—GA 40).
Steiner also taught a set of six “basic” or “subsidiary” exercises, intended to supplement meditation on mantras. The purpose of these is to achieve both control and balance in the practice of thinking, feeling, and willing. The first of these is to think continuously about a single object (such as a pencil) for five minutes; the second is to perform a meaningless action (such as turning a ring on one’s finger) at the same time every day; the third is to observe one’s feelings, restraining the strong ones and strengthening the subtle ones; the fourth is to see the positive in everything; the fifth is to be open to new experiences; and the sixth is to combine the other five exercises in order to achieve balance.
Another anthroposophical practice is spiritual research, often conducted in conjunction with one’s profession. To pursue this, members of the Anthroposophical Society may affiliate not only with a national “branch” but also with one of the “sections” that comprise the School of Spiritual Science.
Each of the anthroposophical initiatives has its own characteristic practices. Worship services in the Christian Community are highly liturgical, centering on a renewed Eucharistic liturgy known as the “Act of Consecration of Man.” Waldorf education is noteworthy for its emphasis on handcrafts as an integral part of education, and for its insistence that each age of childhood brings a distinct developmental task that is relevant to all children of that age, regardless of “ability” (Steiner 1996—GA 293; Steiner 2000—GA 294; Gardner 1996; Spock 1985). Biodynamic agriculture is marked by the use of homeopathic “preparations” to enliven the soil, planting in alignment with the cycles of the moon and the planets, refusal of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and an understanding of each farm as a living organism (Steiner 2004—GA 327; McKanan 2017:1-22). Camphill communities, traditionally, are built around the practices of “lifesharing” and income sharing: Camphillers with and without developmental disabilities live together in common households, and all have their economic needs met without receiving fixed salaries (Bang 2010; Jackson 2011).
The General Anthroposophical Society is a nonprofit organization with an extraordinarily loose basis of membership: anyone can be a member “who considers as justified the existence of an institution such as the Goetheanum in Dornach, [Image at right] in its capacity as a School of Spiritual Science.” The School of Spiritual Science, by contrast, is devoted to esoteric research, and its members pass through a process of initiation that is not fully public. The School includes both a “First Class,” which is the venue for much of the study and meditative work performed by students of Steiner, and “sections” devoted to the professions of pedagogy, medicine, mathematics and astronomy, natural science, speech and music, visual art, performing arts, literature and humanities, agriculture, and social science. There is also a youth section. Many of the sections have individual leaders, but the trend is toward leadership by circles of colleagues. The General Anthroposophical Society has always been governed by an executive council, sometimes with and now without a named chair. At the time of this writing, the members of the Executive Council are Paul Mackay, Bodo von Plato, Seija Zimmermann, Justus Wittich, Joan Sleigh, Constanza Kaliks, and Matthias Girke. The national sections of the Society are directed by general secretaries who are usually individuals but sometimes clusters of colleagues.
Two endemic challenges have produced most of the internal conflicts in the anthroposophical movement. One concerns the uniqueness of Rudolf Steiner’s spiritual authority: how should the movement respond when students of Steiner claim to have developed the clairvoyant powers needed to do their own spiritual research, and present research findings that do not merely confirm Steiner’s indications? The other has to do with the relationship between the Anthroposophical Society and the School for Spiritual Science, on the one hand, and the myriad anthroposophical initiatives on the other.
Anthroposophy inherited the first of these challenges from theosophy, which split into three major organizations and many smaller ones in the years between Madame Blavatsky’s death in 1891 and Rudolf Steiner’s selection as head of the Theosophical Society in Germany in 1902. Each of these schisms turned in large part on individual claims to unique spiritual authority, and the Anthroposophical Society can be seen as yet one more theosophical splinter group. The pattern recurred after Rudolf Steiner’s death, when leadership of the Society passed to a five member executive council. The five agreed that their leadership of the Society was shared equally, but they differed on whether this same equality extended to the School of Spiritual Science, which was responsible for esoteric research. It is not clear whether Ita Wegman actually claimed that her clairvoyant experience entitled her to serve as Steiner’s sole successor at the head of the School, but this is what her opponents (Marie Steiner, Albert Steffen, and Günther Wachsmuth) accused her of doing. They envisioned themselves more as custodians of Steiner’s legacy than as spiritual teachers; indeed, when a subsequent conflict divided Marie Steiner from Albert Steffen, it concerned publication rights to Rudolf Steiner’s writings! The expulsion of Ita Wegman and her allies (including the entire Dutch and British branches of the Anthroposophical Society) set a precedent for the rejection of other teachers claiming clairvoyant gifts (Meyer 2014). A contrary precedent was set in 1960, when the president of the Dutch branch, Willem Zeylmans van Emmichoven, began the process of reconciliation with the Dornach-based leadership of the Anthroposophical Society. That process was gradual, but is now mostly complete, with people rooted in both factions well represented on the current executive council. But there is also a long-simmering conflict centered on the person of Judith von Halle, an anthroposophist who claims to have received the stigmata (wounds of Christ) in her body. For some anthroposophists, such experiences are incompatible with the modern, scientific spirit of anthroposophy, but von Halle and many of her defenders remain in the Society (von Halle 2007; Prokofieff 2010; Tradowsky 2010).
The question of how anthroposophy ought to relate to its daughter initiatives has been debated at least since the collapse of The Coming Day and other cooperative enterprises inspired by Steiner’s economic teachings. In a series of lectures given shortly before he reorganized the Anthroposophical Society, Steiner affirmed the existence of anthroposophical initiatives, but warned that “the failure to give the parent entity what it needs in order to foster all its offspring properly is cause . . . for really deep worry about the Anthroposophical Movement” (Steiner 274—GA 257). For several decades thereafter, most initiatives were fairly tightly connected to the Society. Though the Society did not govern the initiatives directly, those who did were generally Society members. But beginning around 1970, anthroposophical initiatives began expanding rapidly, even as membership in the Society stagnated. Waldorf schools appealed to parents whose children didn’t fit in at regular schools; biodynamics appealed to environmentalists; Camphill communities attracted hippies who wanted an intentional community that would last. Perhaps most importantly, the burgeoning New Age movement produced thousands of people who admired the spiritual emphases of anthroposophy but were too eclectic to commit to a single spiritual path. For the most part, the Society has welcomed all the interest in the initiatives, but Steiner’s “deep worry” is echoed at almost every Society gathering.
While these two issues have often pitted students of Rudolf Steiner against one another, several other topics have created tension between the anthroposophical movement and people beyond it. The most heated of these controversies has to do with Steiner’s teaching on race. Steiner was clear and consistent in opposing the differential treatment of people based on race, or on gender, ethnicity, or religion. He was a vociferous critic of eugenics and identified “the tendency to discriminate on the basis of such outer characteristics as social status, gender, race, and so on” as a major obstacle to spiritual development. (Steiner 1994: 197—GA 10) At the same time, he held attitudes about the different capacities of various races that were widespread among early twentieth century Europeans. On one occasion he said that it is only possible to “rightly understand the spiritual element if one first studies how the spirit works in man precisely through the skin-color” (Steiner 1923). On a few occasions, he belittled and expressed disgust toward persons of African heritage (Steiner 1997c—GA 348). He also had a strong allegiance to German culture and a corresponding wariness toward nationalist impulses on the part of Slavic and Hungarian people within the Austrian empire, though he also opposed Nazism on the grounds that centralized state power was inconsistent with the German spirit (McKanan 2017:195-204).
Steiner taught that each ethnic group has a unique “folk soul” and a special contribution to make to the evolution of humanity. Early in his career, he echoed Madame Blavatsky’s teaching about the “root races” through which humanity has passed in its evolution; later, he softened the racial implication by speaking of cultural epochs rather than root races. Steiner stressed that every human soul will incarnate in multiple races over the course of its spiritual journey, and he taught that the shedding of Christ’s blood at Golgotha began a spiritual process that would eventually dissolve racial differences and unite humanity (Steiner 1998).
Given the complexity of Steiner’s racial teaching, it is not surprising that individual students of Steiner have interpreted it in radically different ways. At the time of the Holocaust, one person who had an especially strong sense of the contrast between anthroposophy and fascism was Ita Wegman, but she and her closest allies had all recently been expelled from the Society (Selg 2014). In this context, and in the face of the forced closure of many Waldorf schools, the Society’s leaders made some significant compromises with Nazism. They issued a public declaration of Steiner’s pure Aryan heritage, and arranged for Jewish anthroposophists living in Germany to affiliate directly with the international society rather than its German branch, allowing the latter to claim racial purity. Biodynamic leaders also worked closely with a few Nazis, notably agriculture secretary Richard Walther Darré and Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess, who believed that organic agriculture was a great way to preserve German “blood and soil” (Staudenmaier 2014).
Given this history, some outside critics wonder if the anthroposophical movement has been sufficiently de-Nazified. They point to the Society’s tardiness in expelling a few unrepentant Nazis as evidence that it has not, and they see its publication of Steiner texts with racially offensive passages excised as evidence of dissimulation, not repentance. Indeed, very few anthroposophists are willing to publicly condemn any of Steiner’s teachings on race. Some are sincerely convinced that his teachings, if properly understood, will help bring about racial justice; many more feel they lack sufficient spiritual insight to criticize Steiner. Anthroposophists who practice the six subsidiary exercises, including the admonition to maintain an open mind and look for the positive in everything, are loathe to criticize anyone, let alone Steiner himself. On the other hand, a commission appointed by the Dutch branch of the Society did identify sixteen passages from Steiner’s works as racist, even as it strongly denied the charge that anthroposophy is inherently racist (McKanan 2017:195-204; Staudenmaier 2014).
In general, there is less discussion of race and racism in anthroposophical circles today than there is of environmentalism or of economic cooperation. The Society and its initiatives remain overwhelmingly white, though the latter are growing rapidly in East Asia. The anthroposophical festivals and much of the Waldorf curriculum can be characterized as Eurocentric, though a significant number of schools have taken steps toward multiculturalism.
Anthroposophy’s claim to be a form of “science” has also provoked criticism from outsiders. This is complicated by the fact that there are two distinct, albeit overlapping, forms of science that are connected with anthroposophy and in tension with mainstream scientific methods. Steiner used the phrase “spiritual science” to describe his method of gaining insight into spiritual and cosmic realities. It was the basis for the indications he gave to his students about their personal karmic connections, for his account of human evolution on multiple planets, and at least in part for his instructions regarding the biodynamic preparations. Spiritual science, as Steiner described it, is experimental but not dependent on the physical senses; it involves disciplined meditation on mental concepts in seclusion from “all external sense impressions” (Steiner 1911). “Goethean science,” by contrast, is a holistic method that involves qualitative study of phenomena in context rather than in the laboratory, but need not involve clairvoyance or special spiritual gifts (Steiner 2008—GA 2; Seamon and Zajonc 1998). Most of the farmers who have fleshed out Steiner’s agricultural teaching practice Goethean science, not spiritual science.
Even from the inside, the boundary between spiritual science and Goethean science is thin, and from the outside it is all but invisible. So it is hard to say whether outside critics object to both practices or just one. In any case, these critics have mobilized both against the way science is taught in Waldorf schools and against some attempts to endow chairs in anthroposophical medicine at major universities. There is also a lively network of “Waldorf critics” who argue that Waldorf education should be understood as religiously based, given the extent it draws influence from Steiner’s spiritual science.
Image #1: Photograph of Rudolph Steiner.
Image #2: Photograph of the first Goetheanum.
Image #3: Photograph of Goetheanum von Suden.
*Note: Most of Rudolf Steiner’s lectures and writings have been assigned a “GA” (Gesamt Ausgabe) number, which makes it easier to identify works that have appeared in multiple editions and translations. In citing Steiner’s works, I therefore provide the GA number as well as the publication year for the English translation. Translations of most of Steiner’s writings are available in searchable format on the Rudolf Steiner Archive website, www.rsarchive.org.
Bang, Jan, ed. 2010. A Portrait of Camphill: From Founding Seed to Worldwide Movement. Edinburg: Floris.
Barnes, Henry. 2005. Into the Heart’s Land: A Century of Rudolf Steiner’s Work in North America. Great Barrington, MA: Steiner Books.
Gardner, John F. 1996. Education in Search of the Spirit: Essays on American Education. Hudson, NY: Anthroposophic Press.
Jackson, Robin, ed. 2011. Discovering Camphill: New Perspectives, Research and Developments. Edinburgh: Floris.
McKanan, Dan. 2017. Eco-Alchemy: Anthroposophy and the History and Future of Environmentalism. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.
Meyer, T. H. 2014. The Development of Anthroposophy since Rudolf Steiner’s Death. Trans. Matthew Barton. Ed. Paul V. O’Leary. Great Barrington, MA: SteinerBooks.
Prokofieff, Sergei. 2010. The Mystery of the Resurrection in the Light of Anthroposophy. Trans. Simon Blaxland-de Lange. Forest Row, UK: Temple Lodge.
Seamon, David, and Arthur Zajonc, eds. 1998. Goethe’s Way of Science: A Phenomenology of Nature. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Selg, Peter. 2012. Spiritual Resistance: Ita Wegman, 1933-1935. Trans. Matthew Barton. Great Barrington, MA: SteinerBooks.
Spock, Marjorie. 1985. Teaching as a Lively Art. Hudson, NY: Anthroposophic Press.
Staudenmaier, Peter. 2014. Between Occultism and Nazism: Anthroposophy and the Politics of Race in the Fascist Era. Leiden: Brill.
Steiner, Rudolf. 2008. Goethe’s Theory of Knowledge: An Outline of the Epistemology of His Worldview. Trans. Peter Klemm. Great Barrington, MA: SteinerBooks. GA 2.
Steiner, Rudolf. 2004. Agriculture Course: The Birth of the Biodynamic Method. Trans. George Adams. Great Barrington, MA: Steiner Books. GA 327.
Steiner, Rudolf. 2000. Practical Advice to Teachers. Hudson, NY: Anthroposophic Press. GA 294.
Steiner, Rudolf. 1999. Autobiography: Chapters in the Course of My Life 1861-1907. Trans. Rita Stebbing. Hudson, NY: Anthroposophic Press. GA 28.
Steiner, Rudolf. 1998. The Christian Mystery: Early Lectures. Trans. James H. Hindes, Catherine Creeger, and Christopher Bamford. Hudson, NY: Anthroposophic Press. GA 96, 97, 102, 267.
Steiner, Rudolf, 1997a. An Outline of Esoteric Science. Trans. Catherine E. Creeger. Hudson, NY: Anthroposophic Press. GA 13.
Steiner, Rudolf, 1997b. Christianity as Mystical Fact. Trans. Andrew Welburn. Hudson, NY: Anthroposophic Press. GA 8.
Steiner, Rudolf. 1997c. Über Gesundheit und Krankheit. Dornach: Rudolf Steiner Verlag. GA 348.
Steiner, Rudolf. 1996. The Foundations of Human Experience. Hudson, NY: Anthroposophic Press. GA 293.
Steiner, Rudolf. 1995. Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path. Trans. Michael Lipson. Hudson, NY: Anthroposophic Press. GA 4.
Steiner, Rudolf. 1994a. Theosophy: An Introduction to the Spiritual Processes in Human Life and in the Cosmos. Trans. Catherine E. Creeger. Hudson, NY: Anthroposophic Press. GA 9.
Steiner, Rudolf. 1994b. How To Know Higher Worlds. Trans. Christopher Bamford. Hudson, NY: Anthroposophic Press. GA 10.
Steiner, Rudolf. 1985. The Renewal of the Social Organism. Trans. E. Bowen-Wedgewood and Ruth Mariott. Hudson, NY: Anthroposophic Press. GA 24.
Steiner, Rudolf. 1982. The Calendar of the Soul. Trans. Ruth and Hans Pusch. Hudson, NY: Anthroposophic Press. GA 40.
Steiner, Rudolf. 1980. “The Foundation Stone Meditation.” Trans. Daisy Aldan. Spring Valley, NY: St. George Publications.
Steiner, Rudolf. 1976. From Symptom to Reality in Modern History. Trans. A. H. Parker. London: Rudolf Steiner Press. GA 185.
Steiner, Rudolf. 1974. Awakening to Community. Trans. Marjorie Spock. Hudson, NY: Anthroposophic Press. GA 257.
Steiner, Rudolf. 1973. Anthroposophical Leading Thoughts. Trans. George and Mary Adams. London: Rudolf Steiner Press. GA 26.
Steiner, Rudolf. 1925. Four Mystery Plays. Trans. H. Collison, S. M. K. Gandell, and R. T. Gladstone. London: Anthroposophical Publishing Company. GA 14.
Steiner, Rudolf. 1923. “Color and the Human Races.” Trans. M. Cotterell. Accessed from www.rsarchive.org on 1 May 2018.
Steiner, Rudolf. 1911. “Psychological Foundations of Anthroposophy.” Trans. Olin D. Wannamaker. GA 35. Accessed from www.rsarchive.org on 1 May 2018.
Tradowsky, Peter. 2010. The Stigmata: Destiny as a Question of Knowledge. Trans. Matthew Barton. Forest Row, UK: Temple Lodge.
von Halle, Judith. 2007. And If He Has Not Been Raised: The Stations of Christ’s Path to Spirit Man. Trans. Brian Strevens. Forest Row, UK: Temple Lodge.
Ahern, Geoffrey. 1984. Sun at Midnight: The Rudolf Steiner Movement and the Western Esoteric Tradition. Wellingborough, UK: Aquarian Press.
Lachman, Gary. 2007. Rudolf Steiner: An Introduction to His Life and Work. New York: Tarcher.
Lindenberg, Christoph. 2012. Rudolf Steiner: A Biography. Trans. Jon McAlice. Great Barrington, MA: Steiner Books.
McDermott, Robert A., ed. 2009. The New Essential Steiner: An Introduction to Rudolf Steiner for the 21st Century. Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Books.
Selg, Peter. 2012. Rudolf Steiner 1861-1925: Lebens- und Werksgeschichte. 3 vols. Arlesheim, Switzerland: Verlag des Ita Wegmans Instituts.
Steiner, Rudolf. 2013-. Schriften: Kritische Ausgabe. Ed. Christian Clement. Stuttgart: Frommann-Holzboog.
von Plato, Bodo. 2003. Anthroposophie im 20. Jahrhundert: Ein Kulturimpuls in Biografischen Porträts. Dornach, Switzerland: Verlag am Goetheanum.
Wilson, Colin. Rudolf Steiner: The Man and His Vision. 1985. Wellingborough, UK: Aquarian Press.
Zander, Helmut. 2007, 2008. Anthroposophie in Deutschland. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht.
Zander, Helmut. 2011. Rudolf Steiner: Die Biografie. Munich: Piper.
3 May 2018