A Sketch of His Life and Work
by: John Davy
Rudolf Steiner was born in Kraljevec (then in Austria, now part of the former Yugoslavia) in 1861, and died in Dornach, Switzerland in 1925. He thus saw the end of an old era and the birth pangs of a new one. His life echoes the transition intimately. The outer surface of the late nineteenth century gave little hint of the extraordinary events the twentieth century would bring. And a superficial biography of the first part of Steiner’s life might not easily foresee the extraordinary activities of his later years. Yet the seeds of the later are to be found in the earlier times. Outwardly, we see the gifted son of a minor railway official growing up in the small peasant villages of Lower Austria. He attended the village schools, and then the modern school in Wiener Neustadt. His father was a freethinker and saw his son as a railway engineer rather than as a priest (the more usual destination for bright boys from the villages). Steiner took a degree in mathematics, physics and chemistry, and later wrote a philosophical thesis for a doctorate. He supported himself through university and afterwards by tutoring. He was drawn into literary and scholarly work.
The famous Goethe scholar, Professor Karl Julius Schroer, who befriended the young man, arranged for him to edit the scientific works of Goethe for a new complete edition. He participated actively in the rich cultural life of Vienna. Then he was invited to Weimar, to the famous Goethe archive, where he remained for seven years, working further on the scientific writings, as well as collaborating in a complete edition of Schopenhauer. The place was a famous centre, visited by the leading lights of Central European culture, and Steiner knew many of the major figures of the artistic and cultural life of his time.
In 1894 he published The Philosophy Of Spiritual Activity, but was disappointed by its reception (we shall return to the significance of this work). Then, as the end of the century approached, he left the settled world of Weimar to edit an avante-garde literary magazine in Berlin. There he met playwrights and poets who were seeking, often desperately, for alternatives of various kinds. The city was a focus for many radical groups and movements. Steiner was invited to lecture at the Berlin Workers’ Training School, sponsored by the trade unions and social democrats. Most of the teaching was Marxist, but he insisted on a free hand. He gave courses on history and natural science, and practical exercises in public speaking. His appeal was such that he was invited to give a festival address to 7~OO printers at the Berlin circus stadium on the occasion of the Gutenberg jubilee. But his refusal to toe any party line did not endear him to the political activists, and soon after the turn of the century he was forced to drop this work.
In 1899, Steiner’s life began to change quite rapidly. Only later did he give a more personal glimpse of his inner struggles, which matured into a far-reaching decision during the 1890s. On August 28, 1899 he published in his magazine a surprising article about Goethe’s mysterious ‘fairy tale’, The Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily. The essay was entitled ‘Goethe’s Secret Revelation’, and pointed definitely, if discreetly, to the ‘occult’ significance of this story. The article attracted the attention of a Count and Countess Brockdorff, who invited Steiner to speak to one of their weekly gatherings. The Brockdorffs were Theosophists. They gave Steiner the first opportunity to realize the decision he came to during the last years of the century, namely to speak openly and directly out of the inner faculties of spiritual perception he had known since childhood and had been quietly nurturing, developing and disciplining ever since.
Quite soon, Steiner was speaking regularly to groups of Theosophists, which upset and bewildered many of his former friends. There was uproar at a lecture on the medieval scholastics which he delivered to the Giordano Bruno Society. The respectable if often radical scholar, historian, scientist, writer and philosopher was emerging as an ‘occultist’. It was truly shocking to many of those around him. Steiner knew he was running risks of isolation. Only in the fringe culture, the Theosophists at first had an ear for what he now wanted to say. Yet he saw around him a culture in decay, and profound crises to come. Much later, he wrote in his autobiography, The Course of My Life: “In the spiritual domain, a new light upon the evolution of humanity was seeking to break through into the knowledge gained during the last third of the nineteenth century. But the spiritual sleep caused by the materialistic interpretation of these acquisitions in knowledge prevented any inkling of this, much less any awareness of it. Thus the very time arrived which ought to have developed in a spiritual direction of its own nature, but which belied its nature the time which began actually to bring about the impossibility of life.”
Steiner’s decision to speak directly of his own spiritual research was not prompted by a desire to set up as a spiritual teacher, to feed curiosity or to revive some form of ‘ancient wisdom’. It was born out of a perception of the needs of the time. As we approach the end of our century, it is perhaps easier to appreciate what Steiner meant by times which ‘begin to bring about the impossibility of life’. This lay behind what he described as ‘my heartfelt desire to introduce into life the impulses from the world of the spirit. . .but for this, there was no understanding.’
It took him nearly two decades to create a basis for the renewing impulses in daily life that he sought to initiate. At first he worked mainly through lectures to Theosophists and others, and through articles and books. These works remain an extraordinarily rich resource which is still far too little known in the English-speaking world. Within quite a short period of years, Steiner surveyed with clarity and intimacy the spiritual realities at work in the kingdoms of nature and in the cosmos, the inner nature of the human soul and spirit and their potential for further development, the nature and practice of meditation, the experiences of the soul before birth and after death, the spiritual history and evolution of humanity and the earth, and detailed studies of the workings of reincarnation and karma. The style is sober and direct throughout, and it often calls for an effort to realize the quite remarkable nature of these communications. For they are not derived from earlier sources, nor was Steiner acting as a spokesman for a spiritual guide. They are fruits of careful spiritual observation and perception – or, as Steiner preferred to call it, ‘spiritual research’ – undertaken in freedom by an individual thoroughly conversant with, and deeply serious about, the integrity of thought and apprehension striven for in natural science.
After seven or eight years, Steiner began to add to his work in ‘spiritual science’ a growing activity in the arts. It is significant and characteristic that he should see the arts as a crucial bridge for translating spiritual science into social and cultural innovation. (We are now vividly aware of what happens when natural science bypasses the human heart and is translated into technology without grace, beauty or compassion.) Between 1910 and 1913 he wrote four Mystery Plays, which follow the lives of a group of people through successive incarnations, and include scenes in the soul and spiritual worlds as well as on earth. With his wife, Marie von Sievers, an actress, new approaches to speech and drama were initiated. In this period, too, lie the beginnings of eurythmy, an art of movement that makes visible the inner forms and gestures of language and music.
In 1913 the foundation stone was laid for the first Goetheanum at Dornach in Switzerland. This extraordinary building in wood, with its vast interlocking cupolas, gradually took shape during the years of the First World War, when an international group of volunteers collaborated with local builders and craftsmen to shape the unique carved forms and structures Steiner designed. The building stimulated much innovation in the use of form and colour and is now increasingly recognized as a landmark in twentieth century architecture. Yet Steiner was not concerned to build an impressive monument. He regarded architecture as the servant of human life, and designed the Goetheanum to support the developing work of anthroposophy (Steiner’s preferred term, which he once said should be understood to mean, quite simply, ‘awareness of one ‘5 humanity’) and particularly the work in drama and eurythmy.
An arsonist caused this building to burn to the ground during the night of December 31, 1922. There survived only the great sculpture of ‘The Representative of Humanity’ on which Steiner had been working in a neighbourhood workshop with the English sculptress, Edith Maryon. Steiner soon designed another building that was completed after his death and now serves as a centre for the world-wide Anthroposophical Society and its School of Spiritual Science. There is a magnificent stage and auditorium, where the Mystery Plays are given regularly, as well as Goethe ‘5 Faust in full, other plays and concerts, and frequent performances of eurythmy.
As the First World War neared its end, Steiner began to find ways to work more widely and deeply for a renewal of life and culture in many spheres. Europe was in ruins and could have been ready for quite new impulses. Attempts to realize a ‘threefold social order’ as a political and social alternative at that time did not succeed, but the conceptual basis Steiner developed exists as a seed that is even more relevant for today.
Steiner’s social thinking can be adequately grasped only in the context of his view of history, which he saw, in direct contrast to Marx, as shaped fundamentally by inner changes in human consciousness in which higher spiritual beings are actively participating. Just in this century, quite new experiences are awakening in the human soul. (Since Steiner’s time this is a good deal more apparent than it was then.) But we cannot expect to build a healthy social order except on the basis of a true and deep insight not only into the material but also into the soul and spiritual nature and needs of human beings as they are today.
These needs are characterized by a powerful tension between the search for community and the experience of individuality. Community, in the sense of material interdependence, is the basic fact of economic life and of the world economy in which it is embedded today. Yet individuality, in the sense of independence of mind and freedom of speech, is essential to every creative endeavour, to all innovation, and to the realization of the human spirit in the arts and sciences. Without spiritual freedom, our culture will wither and die.
Individuality and community, Steiner urged, can be lifted out of conflict only if they are recognized not as contradictions but as a creative polarity rooted in the essential nature of human beings. Each pole can bear fruit only if it has its appropriate social forms. We need forms that ensure freedom for all expression of spiritual life, and forms that promote brotherhood in economic life. But the health of this polarity depends on a full recognition for a third human need and function, the social relationships between people which concern our feeling for human rights. Here again, Steiner emphasized that we need to develop a distinct realm of social organization to support this sphere, inspired by a concern for equality not equality of spiritual capacity or material circumstance, but that sense of equality that awakens through recognition of the essential spiritual nature of every human being. In this lies the meaning and source of every person’s right also to freedom of spirit and to material sustenance.
These insights were the basis from which Steiner then began to respond to a great variety of requests for new beginnings and practical help in many fields. He was approached by doctors, therapists, farmers, businessmen, academics and scientists, theologians and pastors, and by teachers. From these beginnings have grown the many activities which have survived all the tensions and upheavals of this century, and which continue to spread round the world.
Best known, of course, is the work in education and curative education. The former originated in a request from Emil Molt, director of the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory, for a school to which his employees could send their children. There are now Waldorf Schools throughout the world. The homes, schools and village communities for handicapped children and adults are also flourishing. Biodynamic agriculture originated in a course of lectures at Koberwitz in 1924, held at the request of a group of farmers concerned about the destructive trend of ‘scientific’ farming. It has made its main impact so far in European countries, but is now attracting rapidly growing interest in many other parts of the world. From Steiner’s work with doctors, a medical movement has developed that includes clinics and hospitals and a variety of therapeutic work. From a request by a group of German pastors there developed the Christian Community, a movement for religious renewal. The art of eurythmy, which also serves the educational and therapeutic work, has developed strongly, and there are now a number of eurythmy schools where a full four-year training is given. Other training centres for teacher training, agriculture, the arts, social work, and general orientation in anthroposophy have grown up in recent years.
Rudolf Steiner died on March 30, 1925, surrounded by new beginnings. The versatility and creativity he revealed in his later years are phenomenal by any standards. How did he achieve all this?
The last part of the twentieth century is bringing a growing recognition that we live within a deeper reality we can call spiritual, to which at present we have direct access only through altered conditions of consciousness. We are also learning to see that these realities were known in the past, described in other images and languages, and were the source of all great religious and spiritual teachings. They have been obscured and forgotten for a while as our scientific culture devoted itself to the material world revealed by the senses.
Many individuals have glimpses during their lives of spiritual realities. Some recollect a more consistent experience in childhood. A few achieve some form of enduring insight as adults. Rudolf Steiner spoke little of spiritual life in personal terms. But in his autobiography he indicates that from childhood he was fully conscious of a world of invisible reality within the world of everyday. His inner struggle for the first forty years of his life was not to achieve spiritual experience, but to unite this fully with the forms of knowledge and insight of our time, and in particular with the language and discipline of natural science. Historically, this can be seen as the special challenge and contribution of Steiner ‘5 life and work.
He himself saw the scientific age, even in its most materialistic aspects, as an essential phase in the spiritual education of mankind. Only by forgetting the spiritual world for a time and attending to the material world, he said, could there be kindled new and essential faculties, notably an experience of true individual inner freedom. Steiner indicated that his own capacities to meet, in the most practical way, the life questions and working needs of people from so many walks of life, had their origins in the struggles of his earlier years, when he kept almost complete silence concerning his inner experiences, and gradually learned to grasp and articulate their relationship to the mode of consciousness from which science arises. His book The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity embodies a first fruit of these struggles – he himself described it as ‘a biographical account of how one human soul made the difficult ascent to freedom’. Studied more intimately, this book contains the basis for a path of knowledge that can lead the soul to discover spiritual experience and reality right into the world of ordinary thought and experience. Along this path, Steiner sought to develop a spiritual science that is a further development of the true spirit of natural science.
This path led him in his thirties to awaken to an inner recognition of the ‘turning point of time’ in human spiritual history, brought about by the incarnation of the Being we know as the Christ. He saw that the meaning of this event transcends all differentiations of religion, race or nation, and has consequences for all humanity; we are as yet aware only of the beginnings of these. This also led him to know the new presence and working of the Christ, which has begun just in this century, not in the physical world but in the sphere of invisible life-forces of the earth and of mankind.
Steiner was therefore not concerned to bring old teachings in new forms, nor to promulgate doctrines of any kind, but to nurture a path of knowledge in freedom, and of love in action, that can meet the deep and pressing needs of our times. These are the ideals, however imperfectly realized, by which those who find in anthroposophy a continuing inspiration for their lives and work seek to be guided.
A Brief Overview of Geo-Political background of Rudolf Steiner’s Life and Work by Maria Schindler
EUROPE: A Cosmic Picture by Maria Schindler New Knowledge Books, 1975
AUSTRIA Pages 191-194
Geologically, Austria-Hungary reflected the different periods through which the mineral earth came to its present form– just as the Earth itself is the microcosmic result of all-embracing Divine thoughts.
Into this universal scene, natural and human, where the true self has been striven for, Rudolf Steiner was born on 27 February, 1861. He had a link with each of the most important national groups, Germans, Slavs and Hungarians, for his parents came from the German-speaking Waldviertel, he himself was born in Kraljewic in the southern Slav region and he went to school in Neudoerfl, a Hungarian village near the Lower Austrian frontier. As a young man he studied mathematics, natural science and chemistry at Vienna University and also read works on political and economic theory. Behind the socialist claims he could see only a deliberate blindness to true realities and it seemed to him one of the tragedies of the age that the social question, which is of universal importance, was publicized by men so entirely absorbed in materialism.
From the gallery of the Austrian Parliament building, at the side of his old friend and teacher, Karl Julius Schroer, Rudolf Steiner had often followed the passionate political debates in which the characteristics of the different peoples found expression.
Both knew that folk souls stood behind national ties; to Karl Julius Schroer they were ‘ideas’, to Steiner living realities that could not be confined within the political frontiers of the unified state. Spiritual life needed to unfold independently, in harmony with the aims of the folk souls and unfettered by the power of the state. Universal concepts were needed to solve the country’s national, legal and economic problems.
It was while he still lived in Vienna that Steiner prepared his first major work, The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity.* In it he shows with clear logic that true freedom requires man to purify his motives and instincts. Nature makes of him merely a natural being; society, one whose actions are governed by laws; only by his own effort can he attain to freedom. Yet freedom must be attributed to the human will insofar as it realizes purely ideal intuitions; for these are not eh effects of a necessity imposed from without, but are grounded in themselves. Rudolf Steiner leads man to confidence in his individual path.
In Parliament, personality clashed against personality and people against people yet none denied the other’s right to exist. There was then no question of separation, but of finding ways of living together that would be acceptable to all. The Slavs were mainly concerned about political interference in their intellectual life. The Czechs inwardly rebelled against the Germans, who in turn felt threatened by the Czechs, although they shared the memory of a long historical past that had proved fruitful in many ways. The Italian areas also suffered from the control exercised by Vienna over their cultural life. The inhabitants of the south of the Tyrol were only partly German, yet even those whose mother-tongue was Italian felt linked to Central Europe in many respects.
Among the Hungarians, proud and independent as they were, the conflict had begun several decades earlier; the Empire was therefore now officially called Austria-Hungary. What embittered the Hungarians particularly was official intervention in their cultural life. They could not forget that the Austrian government had destroyed their Protestantism. But though they were indignant when Vienna introduced German as the official language in Hungary, they accepted that Austrian officials would find it very difficult to learn Hungarian and that some kind of common language was therefore needed. Their choice fell on Latin. Yet the Hungarians had nothing against the German people or the German spirit: they loved Francis Joseph’s consort, the Empress Elizabeth, whose kind, all-embracing German character belonged also to Hungary, whose debt to the German spirit was considerable. German splinter groups in Transylvania, the Banat and the Danube valley had for centuries nursed the culture they had brought with them as settlers from the region around Lake Constance.
From generation to generation, German Christmas plays had thus been performed in Hungary, and this quiet, unobstrusive activity was a source of strength to the Hungarian people as well. The Germans were a healthy ferment in the realm of culture; in part they became absorbed among the Hungarians.
Although at the end of the nineteenth century, neither Czechs nor Hungarians were thinking of separating from Austria, opposition grew throughout the Austrian provinces against claims to power that made harmonious regional development impossible. It was often said that the time had come for profound changes everywhere; but in Austria the dislike of radical change was stronger than the will for renewal, and the new measures taken proved unwise.
The Austrian problems were problems of humanity. In the summer of 1917 Rudolf Steiner (who was not known in political circles) approached the leading statesmen of Austria with a proposed solution for the complex situation of Central Europe. He realized that economic and cultural life would be more and more hindered in development if they were not separated from the political sphere; and he gave clear warning of the destructive consequences of the prevailing tendencies.
He proposed that the State should hand over the entire economic life to an administration chosen by its own personalities, not by the government, thus allowing it independent mobility, and should renounce control of cultural life. A freedom could then develop in which minorities could feel at home. They would discern new possibilities for the future and hope would be born anew. Only by such action could Central Europe be saved to fulfill its common cultural tasks.
Not only the future of Austria was in question, but of the world as a whole. Before the first World War ended, Steiner, then living in Berlin, had worked out directives along which a threefold social system could develop. His Memorandum was submitted to the last Austrian emperor, Charles I; during the negotiations at Brest-Litovsk it was among the papers of the German delegates.
Had a pronouncement in favour of new healing impulses been made from the right place, the effect could have been far-reaching indeed. The peoples of the Russian East could have understood the supplanting of Tsarism by impulses that corresponded with their longing for true brotherhood.
Among the English-speaking peoples were men who could see what was at work in the nations of Central and Eastern Europe; a central-European policy based on insight into the spiritual background of social life would have been intelligible to a western view which reckoned with historical necessities. The American peace programme should have been met by another, issuing from Europe.
The threefold system offered hope of fulfillment to the three ideals of the French Revolution–Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. Because man speaks a certain language, goes to school, or represents a point of view, his life extends into the realm of the spirit where Freedom should reign. In living under the protection of the state, like his fellow-men, he partakes of the life of rights, where Equality can rule. As a producer and consumer, he is part of the economic life, which tends towards Brotherhood.
Because of the tripartite nature of human existence, thoughts on these lines are like a rock on which a healthy social order can be based. Rudolf Steiner’s book, The Threefold Commonwealth,** was in the hands of the delegates at the Versailles conference. In innumerable lectures he had spoken of the need to turn to new impulses, strive for their realization and understand their world-wide significance. He fought for the future of humanity. If insight and the strength to make decisions failed, the whole human race would have to suffer.
But no-one in political circles was sufficiently far-sighted to take up his suggestions and so create the foundations for reconstruction. The rejection of the proposals for a threefold social order determined the later history of the twentieth century.
When efforts to introduce it had failed, Rudolf Steiner said: “ The threefold social order will come. But now it will only materialize after humanity has passed through the greatest catastrophes.”
* Berlin, 1894. English translations, also as The Philosophy of Freedom, 1916 to 1970.
** Rudolf Steiner Press, London
SWITZERLAND Pages 199-201
In this small, rocky country, whose population stands firmly on the ground, Rudolf Steiner spent the last twelve years of his life. During his early years in Austria he had planned, with thoughts of regal power, his book about human freedom. In Germany from 1889 to 1912 he had opened up the sources of the spirit to human striving. In Switzerland, he gave practical indications for a renewal of cultural life. His proposals for the threefold commonwealth date from these years.
From Switzerland he visited other countries. The questions he was asked at that time directly concerned practical life. In co-operation with doctors he evolved the fundamentals of a new art of healing. To orthodox medicine he added a deepened knowledge of the body, soul and spirit, as well as understanding for the healing properties of plants and minerals. When hew was asked about the care of retarded children, he gave answers that inspired a new art of curative education which offers profound understanding of those souls who cannot adjust themselves fully to conditions on Earth in their present lives.
In response to questions from the director of the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart, who wanted to found a school for the children of his employees, he gave courses for teachers, initiating a new type of education which meets the innermost needs of childhood and adolescence.
Several Protestant clergymen approached Rudolf Steiner with problems of pastoral care and the celebration of the Sacraments today. When a sufficient number of people demanded advice of this kind, Rudolf Steiner gave courses to priests, which led to the foundation of the Christian Community.
Young farmers asked about the application of healing principles to agriculture. In the resulting lectures arranged by a Silesian landowner he gave all the instructions necessary to open up the soil to the forces of the cosmos, thus allowing it to gain new life forces.
He also gave a new impetus to art. For the sculptural treatment of wood and clay he created examples in which the normally invisible movement of the intermediate stages of forms in metamorphosis is made manifest. In painting, he showed how the rhythms of temporal metamorphosis can be re-created and colours adapted to the laws of the rainbow. Architecture also received new impulses through him. Modern buildings whose form is based on the cube are the image of present-day utilitarianism. In future, the more man becomes conscious of the spirit the more this type of architecture will yield to living forms. Rudolf Steiner showed the way to such development.
He also made possible a wider understanding for music whose connection with the world of stars he made evident. His new art of movement, Eurythmy, brings speech and movement, as well as music, into harmony.
In every sphere he led beyond earlier ideals and showed the way towards a healthier development. In particular he appealed to young people for decisions made consciously in the depth of the heart. Through his own life he showed what can be achieved by a human being filled with wisdom. His life was a continually renewed sacrifice to humanity, a ceaseless effort to stretch out a hoping brotherly hand in every situation. Whatever he did he achieved out of love, presence of mind, and fully mastered capacities that were rooted in start wisdom.
Rudolf Steiner himself designed the Goetheanum* building. Here the science of the spirit was to find a home. Constructed entirely in wood, it was like and image of the cosmos ad of the development of man. The succession of columns in the great hall was an illustration through form of the basic impulses of the planets and of the peoples of Europe. The columns led the gaze to the large cupola, which was joined to a smaller dome painted with scenes of past and future as they appear in the world chronicle of Divine spirits.
On the Eve of New Year, 1922-23, the Goetheanum was deliberately burned down. At midnight the flames pierced the domes and rose like a gigantic torch to the sky. The pillar intended as the representation of wisdom burned on into the morning. Two years and three months after the fire, Rudolf Steiner died.*
He had carved a large statue for the Goetheanum. This escaped the flames, not yet having been moved to its intended position; but it remained unfinished. It shows the
Representative of Humanity between the two Adversaries who accompany evolution. Above Him is the tempter who would draw man away from the Earth, below Him the other, whose aim it is to keep humanity earth-bound. Standing between is Christ who brings healing balance. What He achieved mankind should one day be able to attain.
The statue of the Representative of Humanity concerns all future earth development. It can be an appeal to every human being to be wide awake, if he is striving to be fully human and to become truly free.**
* Rudolf Steiner before he died, designed a model for the New Goetheanum, to be built in concrete.
**The statue now stands in the new Goetheanum.
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