Rudolf Steiner

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Rudolf Steiner

Rudolf Steiner (February 27, 1861, Donji Kraljevec, Hungary [today Croatia ] – March 30, 1925) was an Austrian philosopher, literary scholar, architect, playwright, educator, and social thinker, who is best known as the founder of Anthroposophy and its practical applications, including Waldorf School, Biodynamic agriculture, the Camphill Movement, and the Christian Community.

Steiner characterized history as essentially shaped by changes formed through a progressive development of human consciousness. The activity of individualised human thinking was seen as a relatively recent advance which led to the dramatic developments of the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution. In his epistemological works, he advocated the Goethean view that thinking itself is a perceptive instrument for ideas, just as the eye is a perceptive instrument for light.

He characterized his system of Anthroposophy as follows:

"Anthroposophy is a path of knowledge, to guide the spiritual in the human being to the spiritual in the universe... Anthroposophists are those who experience, as an essential need of life, certain questions on the nature of the human being and the universe, just as one experiences hunger and thirst."
-Rudolf Steiner, Anthroposophical Leading Thoughts (1904)


Goethean Scholar and Philosopher

Steiner's father was a huntsman in the service of Count Hoyos in Geras, and later became a telegraph operator and stationmaster on the Southern Austrian Railway. When Rudolf was born, his father was stationed in Donji Kraljevec in the Međimurje region, present-day northernmost Croatia, then part of Austria-Hungary. When he was two years old, the family moved into Burgenland, Austria, in the foothills of the eastern Alps.

Steiner displayed a keen and early interest in mathematics and philosophy. From 1879-1883 he attended the Technische Hochschule (Technical University) in Vienna, where he concentrated on mathematics, physics, and chemistry. In 1891, with his thesis Truth and Knowledge, he earned a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Rostock in Germany.

In 1888, Steiner was invited by Grand Duchess Sophie of Saxony to edit the complete edition of Goethe's scientific works in Weimar, where he worked until 1896. During this time he also collaborated in a complete edition of Arthur Schopenhauer's work.

He wrote his seminal philosophical work, Die Philosophie der Freiheit (The Philosophy of Freedom) in 1894. It advocated the possibility that humans can become spiritually free beings through the conscious activity of thinking (see section on 'Philosophical Debate').

In 1896, Friedrich Nietzsche's sister, Forster-Nietzsche, asked Steiner to set the Nietzsche archive in Naumburg in order. Her brother by that time was no longer compos mentis. Forster-Nietzsche introduced Steiner into the presence of the catatonic philosopher and Steiner, deeply moved, subsequently wrote the book Friedrich Nietzsche, Fighter for Freedom.

In 1897, Steiner moved to Berlin to edit the Magazin fr Literatur.

A turning-point came when, in the August 28, 1899 issue of this magazine, he published an article entitled "Goethe's Secret Revelation" on the esoteric nature of Goethe's fairy tale, The Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily. This article led to an invitation by the Count and Countess Brockdorff to speak to a gathering of Theosophists on the subject of Nietzsche. He continued speaking regularly to the members of the Theosophical Society, eventually becoming the head of its German Section.

Unlike the Theosophists, Steiner encouraged the development of artistic efforts within the Society — and this was poorly received. Feeling that they could no longer exist with their contributions as a part of the Theosophical Society, the Anthroposophical Society was founded in 1912, taking most of the German Theosophical members along with it.

The society remained active, and after years of extensive touring and lecturing, the organization needed a home for their activities. In 1913, Steiner was employed as architect for the first Goetheanum building in Dornach, Switzerland. It was built entirely by the work of volunteers who offered their skills of craftsmanship and trade. By 1919, the first run of Goethe's Faust had been produced there — the same year as the founding of the first Waldorf school in Stuttgart.

The Goetheanum developed as a cultural centre which included activities in mathematics, medicine, Biodynamic agriculture, and schools of art. It was within the Society that Steiner met his wife Marie von Sievers, with whom he developed a new artform known as Eurythmy (aka 'visible speech'). On New Year's Eve, 1922, the first Goetheanum building was burned down by arsonists. Unwavered, work was begun on a second Goetheanum building — still under construction when he died in 1925.

During the Christmas conference in 1923, he founded the School of Spiritual Science. The School has become increasingly active since Steiner's day, and is structured like a university. As such, it has three classes (years) and various sections (faculties). Within the society, it is seen as a centre of activity in education, agriculture, art, natural science, medicine, and economics.

Waldorf Education

In 1919 Emil Molt, on behalf of workers of the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart, invited him to lecture on the topic of education. This, and subsequent lectures, formed the basis for the Waldorf School movement—perhaps the largest independent schooling system in the world. As of 2004, there are some 870 schools worldwide, including about 170 in the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

Somewhat independently of the Waldorf schools, a separate school for Spiritual Science was founded at the Goetheanum during Christmas 1923. Within the Anthroposophical society, it is seen as a centre of research in education, agriculture, art, natural science, medicine, and economics. This school has become increasingly active since Steiner's day.

Steiner the Activist and Social threefolding

For a period after World War I, Steiner was extremely active and well-known in Germany in part because in many places he gave lectures on social questions. A petition expressing his basic social ideas (signed by Herman Hesse, among others) was very widely circulated. His main book on social questions, Die Kernpunkte der Sozialen Frage (available in English today as Toward Social Renewal) sold tens of thousands of copies. Today around the world there are a number of innovative banks, companies, charitable institutions, and schools for developing new cooperative forms of business, all working partly out of Steiner’s social ideas. One example is The Rudolf Steiner Foundation, incorporated in 1984, and as of 2004 with estmated assets of $70 million. RSF provides "charitable innovative financial services". According to the independent organizations Co-op America and the Social Investment Forum Foundation, RSF is "one of the top 10 best organizations exemplifying the building of economic opportunity and hope for individuals through community investing."

Steiner's Outlook on Social History

In Steiner's various writings and lectures he held that there were three main spheres of power comprising human society: the cultural, the economic and the political. In ancient times, those who had political power were also generally those with the greatest cultural/religious power and the greatest economic power. Culture, State and Economy were fused (for example in ancient Egypt). With the emergence of classical Greece and Rome, the three spheres began to become more autonomous. This autonomy went on increasing over the centuries, and with the slow rise of egalitarianism and individualism, the failure adequately to separate economics, politics and culture was felt increasingly as a source of injustice.

The Three Kinds of Social Separations Steiner Wanted Strengthened

1) Increased separation between the State and the economy

Examples: A rich man should be prevented from buying politicians and laws. A politician shouldn’t be able to parlay his political position into riches earned by doing favors for businessmen. Slavery is unjust, because it takes something political, a person’s inalienable rights, and absorbs them into the economic process of buying and selling. Steiner also advocated more cooperatively organized forms of capitalism (what might today be called stakeholder capitalism) precisely because conventional shareholder capitalism tends to absorb the State and human rights into the economic process and transform them into mere commodities.

2) Increased separation between the State and cultural life

Examples: A government should not be able to control culture; i.e., how people think, learn, or worship. A particular religion or ideology should not control the levers of the State. Steiner held that pluralism and freedom were the ideal for education and cultural life.

3) Increased separation between the economy and cultural life

Examples: A corporation should not be able to control the cultural sphere by using economic power to bribe schools into accepting ‘educational’ programs larded with advertising, or by secretly paying scientists to produce research results favorable to the business’s economic interests. The fact that churches, temples and mosques do not make the ability to pay a criterion of the ability to enter and participate, and that libraries and museums are open to all free of charge, is in tune with Steiner’s notion of a separation between cultural and economic life. In a similar spirit, Steiner held that all families, not just rich ones, should have access to independent schools for their children and freedom of choice in education.

Education's Relation to the State and the Economy

Steiner’s view of education’s social position calls for special comment. For Steiner, separation of the cultural sphere from the political and economic spheres meant education should be available to all children regardless of the ability of families to pay for it and, on the elementary and secondary level, should be provided for by private and|or state scholarships that a family could direct to the school of its choice. Steiner was a supporter of educational freedom, but was flexible, and understood that a few legal restrictions on schools (such as health and safety laws), provided they were kept to an absolute minimum, would be necessary and justified.

"Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" and Three Examples of Macrosocial Imbalance: 1) Theocracy, 2) Communism/State Socialism, 3) Conventional Capitalism

Steiner held that the French Revolution’s slogan, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,” expressed in an unconscious way the distinct needs of the three social spheres at the present time: liberty in cultural life, equality in a democratic political life, and (uncoerced) fraternity/sorority in economic life. According to Steiner, these values, each one applied to its proper social realm, would tend to keep the cultural, economic and political realms from merging unjustly, and allow these realms and their respective values to check, balance and correct one another. The result would be a society-wide separation of powers. Steiner argued that increased autonomy for the three spheres would not eliminate their mutual influence, but would cause that influence to be exerted in a more healthy and legitimate manner, because the increased separation would prevent any one of the three spheres from dominating. In the past, according to Steiner, lack of autonomy had tended to make each sphere merge in a servile or domineering way with the others.

For example, under theocracy, the cultural sphere (in the form of a religious impulse) fuses with and dominates the economic and political spheres. Under communism and state socialism, the political sphere fuses with and dominates the other two spheres. And under the typical sort of capitalist conditions, the economic sphere tends to dominate the other two spheres. Steiner points toward social conditions where domination by any one sphere is increasingly reduced, so that theocracy, communism, and the standard kind of capitalism might all be gradually transcended.

For Steiner, threefolding was not a social recipe or blueprint. It could not be "implemented" like some utopian program in a day, a decade, or even a century. It was a complex open process that began thousands of years ago and that he thought was likely to continue for thousands more.

Apart from his central book on social questions, Toward Social Renewal, there are at least two others available in English: World Economy (14 lectures from 1922) and The Social Future (revised edition 1972).

Architecture, Eurythmy and Free Spiritual Culture

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Balcony of the Goetheanum

Steiner developed an organic style of architecture for the design and construction of some seventeen buildings. The most significant of these are the first and second Goetheanums. These two structures, both built in Dornach, Switzerland (the first beginning in 1913), were intended to house a University for Spiritual Science.

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First Goetheanum

The first Goetheanum was burned down by arsonists on New Year's eve 1922. Several surrounding buildings he designed survived the blaze (the Glasshaus, Haus Duldeck, the Transformerhaus, etc.).

Second Goetheanum
Second Goetheanum

Construction of the second Goetheanum building began on the same site shortly before he died in 1925. He conceived it as an organic extension and metamorphosis of the first building, inspiring and pre-dating architects such as Le Corbusier, and Eero Saarinen's Kennedy Airport (1962).

Within the Society, Steiner met his wife Marie von Sievers, with whom he developed a new artform (that also has therapeutic uses) known as Eurythmy (German: "Eurythmie")— sometimes referred to as "visible speech and visible song". Performances are still held at the Goetheanum in Dornach, and at various theatres throughout the world. There are now a number of Eurythmy schools where a full four-year training is given.

As Playwright, he wrote four "Mystery Dramas" between 1909 and 1913, including "The Portal of Initiation" and "The Soul's Awakening". They are still performed today.

As a sculptor, his primary work was The Representative of Humanity (1922). This enormous work carved in wood is still on display at the Goetheanum in Dornach.


Weleda, biodynamic farming, Camphill

A philosophic basis rooted in a practical sensibility yielded continuations to his work. In 1921, pharmacists and physicians gathered under Steiner's guidance to create a pharmaceutical company called Weleda, which now distributes natural medical products worldwide.

In 1924, a lecture to a group of farmers concerned about the destructive trend of "scientific farming" originated the practice of biodynamic agriculture, which is now practiced throughout much of Europe, North America, and Australasia. This is not quite the same as the more general concept of organic farming, rather drawing on anthroposophy and Goethean science.

In 1939, Doctor Karl Konig founded the Camphill Movement in Scotland as a place to provide treatment for children with severe learning disabilities. There are currently more than a dozen Camphill Villages and eight Colleges providing a home for more than 1000 residents.

A few aspects of Steiner's way of thinking

According to Steiner, a real spiritual world exists out of which the material one gradually condensed, so to speak, and evolved. The spiritual world, Steiner held, can in the right circumstances be researched through direct experience, by persons practicing rigorous forms of ethical and cognitive self-discipline. Steiner described many exercises he said were suited to strengthening such self-discipline. Details about the spiritual world, he said, could on such a basis be discovered and reported, not infallibly, but with approximate accuracy.

Yet Steiner was periodically at pains to discourage taking his research reports as either accurate or inaccurate 'information' -- an interpretation he considered relatively superficial. Steiner preferred for readers to enter into the process of his thinking and not cling too rigidly to the fixed results, i.e. the thoughts that crystallized out of that process. He often said there was a hidden life in thinking and advised people to attend more to the spirit or 'drift' of his words than to the letter. Otherwise readers would fall into an excessive literalism and turn his work into a doctrine, a result he wanted to avoid.

Those of Steiner's students alert to this distinction tend to affirm Steiner’s claim that remaining actively within the process, as opposed to the results of Steiner's thinking, can have the effect of awakening one gradually into forms of superconscious spiritual awareness. Steiner appears to offer a gradual experiential path from ordinary conceptual thinking into forms of thinking perceptive of living spiritual beings and mobile realities in the spiritual world. Because the spiritual path Steiner offers is based in many ways on the gradual transformation of thinking into a wholly new activity of the whole person -- an activity of thought, feeling and will seamlessly integrated into a form of spiritual awareness that eventually leaves the body and peregrinates through spiritual worlds -- Steiner's teaching has attracted a fair number of trained scientists, physicians, and scholars in various fields.

Gaining access to the unusual forms of consciousness embodied in some of Steiner's works is not a matter of believing in or having faith in whatever Steiner chose to say about spiritual beings. It is rather that Steiner's thinking, if adequately penetrated with one's own active questioning, thinking and feeling, eventually reveals itself as a sort of spiritual music full of aesthetic tensions and relaxations and various kinds of spiritual dynamism, and this spiritual dynamism, full of complex metamorphoses of form and color, can itself eventually be perceived as the speaking and singing of living spiritual beings and of a real spiritual world.

It should be emphasized that this consciousness of the spirit is not so much related to the content of Steiner's statements, where he tells us the characteristics of this or that spiritual being (or something similar) that he says he has perceived. It is not so much such content that is effective but rather something a bit deeper, within the content, that leads one to begin to enter higher states of awareness and 'hear' or 'see' spiritual beings as one reads Steiner. The mere content is so to speak thrown up to the surface of Steiner's thinking by the style, or better, by the movement and metamorphic-metaphoric process of his thinking, and it is this underlying formative process (or portions of it in some of his lectures and books) that can gradually lead to a sort of superconsciousness awareness of living in spiritual worlds at least as real and persuasive as the physical world. Whereas mere content can be memorized like recipes, and then parroted mindlessly, formative process can only be experienced if one actively recreates it from within.

An obstacle to 'getting' Steiner, in the just mentioned sense, is that reading for people today is rarely a process where the dynamic birth of the conceptual out of a pre-conceptual background is felt and recreated as we read each word. When reading is creative today, that creativity tends to be confined within conceptual life, and only rarely extends to the threshhold between conceptual and pre-conceptual life, the threshold where not just this or that concept, but conceptuality itself, can be experienced in the process of its creative origination, and seen at its core as fundamentally an imaginative birthing activity. Lacking awareness of this particular threshold, we also lack consciousness of the elastic poetic dynamism at the very basis not only of our most 'literal' ideas and scientific terminologies, but at the basis of the world process itself.

Thus one way of remaining within the process (as opposed to the results) of Steiner's thinking, is to gradually learn through his works how to live consciously at the threshhold where conceptuality comes into being. There one no longer is confined to observing things that already are -- one begins to see realities emerging into being, and that means seeing to some extent into 'non-being' itself, and discovering there more than mere nothingness: a hidden life of creative non-material beings and processes in a non-material world.

Steiner Criticism

The movement Steiner founded is not free of totalitarian notions, and criticism of the works of Steiner is uncommon and not tolerated within Anthroposophic circles.

Most articles about Steiner - like this one - have been authored by Steiner followers. Most scientists acquainted with the topics Steiner touched regard him as substandard and unprofessional in his methods, and therefore completely disregard his works.

Access to Steiner's original manuscripts is strictly controlled by Rudolf Steiner Nachlassverwaltung. Most books sold as authored by Steiner are based on third-party protocols of speeches; the exact genesis of the works remains unknown.

There are some intellectuals who admire Steiner's efforts to transform ordinary thinking gradually into a higher thinking that is at the same time a perceiving of the spiritual world. Some examples of books and authors profoundly influenced by Steiner: physicist Henri Bortoft's The Wholeness of Nature, physicist Arthur Zajonc's Catching the Light, physicist Georg Unger's Forming Concepts in Physics, physicist Stephen Edelglass' The Marriage of Sense and Thought, biologist Craig Holdrege's Genetics and the Manipulation of Life, chemist Georg Khulewind's From Normal to Healthy, philosopher Owen Barfield's World's Apart, philosopher Richard Tarnas' Passion of the Western Mind, cultural critic Theodore Roszak's Unfinished Animal. See also computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum's comments on Steiner, or those of Albert Schweitzer. Andrei Belyi, the great Russian symbolist writer, was also profoundly influenced by Steiner and wrote essays about him.

Franz Kafka gave what, from his own literary perspective, was perhaps the highest compliment, calling Steiner's mystery plays 'incomprehensible' (or something similar). See also the collection of scientific articles edited by physicist Arthur Zajonc and architect David Seamon, Goethe's Way of Science, A Phenomenology of Nature. Nevertheless, Steiner remains unknown by many and rejected by others.

The high regard in which Steiner is held within the Anthroposopical movement, which sees his teaching as foundational, has prompted some critics to see Steiner as a founder of a religion, not as a philosopher in the usual sense of the word. The idea, if there is a degree of truth to it, evolves from overzealous students, not from Rudolf Steiner.

Steiner frequently asked his students to test everything he said, and not to take his statements on authority or faith. He also said that if it had been practicable, he would have changed the name of his teachings every day, to keep people from hanging on to the literal meaning of those teachings, and to stay true to their character as something intended to be alive and metamorphic. Nor was Steiner shy about saying that his works would gradually become obsolete, and that each generation should rewrite them. Individual freedom and spiritual independence are among the values Steiner most emphasized in his books and lectures.

Steiner's views of Christianity have been criticized as heretical. For example, his view that there were two Jesus children involved in the Incarnation of the Christ (one child descended from Solomon, the other from Nathan— this might seem a bit less outlandish when one recalls that 'Jesus' was a common name in biblical times.); that the divine "Christ Spirit", the Son-God of the Trinity, incarnated at the moment of the baptism by John; that up until the moment of the baptism by John in the Jordan, Jesus was a very great holy man, but not yet the divine Son of God; that "the Christ Being" is not only the Redeemer of the Fall from Paradise, but also the unique pivot and meaning of earth's evolutionary processes and of human history; that Yahveh (Jehovah) dwelt in the moon, but Elohim in the Sun; and that the second coming of the Christ meant the Christ would, for slowly increasing numbers of people, become manifest in the etheric realm beginning around the year 1933. (Steiner was not referring to the hypothetical ether of 19th century physicists, and on several occasions carefully distinguished his own use of the term from their use of it.)

Occasionally Steiner is criticized for his advice to delay reading until students reach the age 6 or 7. Still, a government commission in Germany conducted a study in the 1990s and found that German Waldorf school (Steiner school) graduates scored significantly higher than German public school graduates on the Abitur, a high school graduate exam widely administered in Germany. The significance of this finding is questionable, because not all Waldorf students are admitted to prepare for the Abitur.

Some critics say the Waldorf schools' emphasis on imagination and creativity can sometimes lead to child-led class sessions without focus or direction. To the contrary, Waldorf educators report that it is a highly structured, disciplined educational model. The emphasis on arts and creativity complements a challenging curricula.

Philosophical Debate

The claim he made in this book to have disproved transcendental idealism, the philosophy of Immanuel Kant—he had read the whole of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason by the age of 14—has been rejected by some philosophers, accepted by others, and remains unknown to many.

Richard Tarnas, in his book The Passion of the Western Mind, includes Steiner as one significant figure within the whole history of thought. Tarnas wrote, almost precisely the same time that the Enlightenment reached its philosophical climax in Kant, a radically different epistemological perspective began to emerge—first visible in Goethe...developed in new directions by Schiller, Schelling, Hegel, Coleridge, and Emerson, and articulated within the past century by Rudolf Steiner. Each of these thinkers gave his own distinct emphasis to the developing perspective, but common to all was a fundamental conviction that the relation of the human mind to the world was ultimately not dualistic but participatory...In essence this alternative conception did not oppose the Kantian epistemology but rather went beyond it, subsuming it in a larger and subtler understanding of human knowledge. The new conception fully acknowledged the validity of Kant's critical insight, that all human knowledge of the world is in some sense determined by subjective principles; but instead of considering these principles as belonging ultimately to the separate human subject, and therefore not grounded in the world independent of human cognition, this participatory conception held that these subjective principles are in fact an expression of the world's own being, and that the human mind is ultimately the organ of the world's own process of self-revelation. In this view, the essential reality of nature is not separate, self-contained, and complete in itself, so that the human mind can examine it 'objectively' and register it from without. Rather, nature's unfolding truth emerges only with the active participation of the human mind. Nature's reality is not merely phenomenal, nor is it independent and objective; rather, it is something that comes into being through the very act of human cognition. Nature becomes intelligible to itself through the human mind. - Richard Tarnas, p.433-434, 1991.

On the basis of this epistemology, Steiner attempted to develop a qualitative science to complement the quantitative science of Newton, Galileo and Einstein. Steiner claimed that if one practiced various systematic forms of inner discipline, it would be possible to create an increasingly objective, testable knowledge of a noumenal or spiritual world. While small groups of scientists find brilliant originality in Steiner's scientific work and seek to carry it forward (see, for example, The Wholeness of Nature by physicist Henri Bortoft), the majority of scientists have never heard of Steiner, and of the minority who have, most probably take his work to be unscientific. Scientists developing Steiner's work argue that it sometimes doesn't receive a fair hearing because of prejudice against even the possibility of a qualitative science of non-physical worlds.

Selected bibliography

The style and content of Steiner's works can vary greatly. Therefore, while it might be stimulating to read a single lecture or book by Steiner, it would probably be a mistake, having read even four or five of his books, to suppose one has a representative picture of the whole body of his work. Out of the 350 volumes of his collected works (including roughly forty written books, and over 6000 published lectures), some of the more significant works include

  • The Philosophy of Freedom (1894)
  • How to Know Higher Worlds (1904-5)
  • Anthroposophy and the Inner Life (1924)
  • Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World-Conception (1886)
  • Theosophy (1904)
  • Study of Man (1919) (Waldorf Education)
  • Practical Advice To Teachers (1919)
  • The Education of the Child (1907)
  • Toward Social Renewal (1919)
  • An Outline of Esoteric Science (1913)
  • Four Mystery Dramas - The Soul's Awakening (1913)
  • Truth and Science (doctoral thesis)
  • Man as Symphony of the Creative Word (1923)

External links

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